STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, one attraction for possible buyers of MGM is the studio's giant library of old movies and TV shows. Cable channels traditionally buy those programs for reruns and play them over and over and over. But with cable channels like HBO and AMC producing more of their own shows, these reruns are being sidelined.
Jesse Baker explains.
JESSE BAKER: Until recently, Americans have pretty much proven themselves not only willing to watch just about anything, but willing to watch it again and again, from Lucy and Desi to the Starship Enterprise, to the show that needs no other introduction.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Law & Order")
Mr. STEVEN ZIRNKILTON (Voice Actor): In the criminal justice system...
Ms. EMILY NUSSBAUM (Journalist, New York Magazine): It's a truism at this point, that people can watch eight hours of "Law & Order" in a row, including episodes that they've already seen.
BAKER: New York Magazine's Emily Nussbaum.
Ms. NUSSBAUM: But they're not watching it because it's high quality. They're watching it because it's soothing and comforting.
(Soundbite of song, "Where Everybody Knows Your Name")
Mr. GARY PORTNOY (Singer-Songwriter) (Singing) Where everybody knows your name...
BAKER: Reruns, Nussbaum says, take you back and allow you to catch up with old friends.
(Soundbite of song, "I'll Be There for You")
BAKER: Historically, to be able to sell a show in reruns, networks only had to know one thing...
Mr. BRAD SIEGEL (Former President, Turner Entertainment Networks): Great comedy works.
BAKER: Brad Siegel is the former president of Turner Entertainment Networks, and under his watch, TNT stole - or really outbid - A&E for reruns of "Law & Order." And the other unwritten rule, Siegel says, used to be that shows had to have at least 66 episodes under their belt. That magic number produced a bigger profit when broadcast networks auctioned their shows off, because it allows a cable channel to do what the industry calls stripping.
Mr. SIEGEL: To be able to run a show Monday through Friday in a certain time slot. And typically, you'd want to go three months before you started to repeat.
BAKER: There used to be big bucks to be made by selling a show off its original network as a rerun. HBO sold "The Sopranos" to A&E for more than $2 million per episode, and that's roughly the same amount that CBS got from TNT for reruns of "The Mentalist." But today, any rules that regulated the rerun market are being scrambled. Cable channels are replacing reruns with their own original programming, and that's crowding out reruns.
Derek Kompare is the author of "Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television."
Professor DEREK KOMPARE (Media Arts, Southern Methodist University; Author): These days, there's certainly more cachet in developing original series, and I think ultimately, they're seeking more profits for that, too.
BAKER: Original shows like "Royal Pains" on USA, "The Closer" on TNT and "Mad Men" on AMC have replaced reruns as the backbone of their networks.
Again, Brad Siegel.
Mr. SIEGEL: Cable networks have tried to become brands. And in that brand and in the way they define themselves, they create certain filters on the kinds of shows that, when you put them all together, they sort of define a network.
Unidentified Announcer: Only on TBS. Very funny.
BAKER: So if TBS is very funny, and characters are welcome on the USA Network and TNT knows drama, then what cable networks are willing to buy as a rerun now suddenly goes through a stiff filtering process, ensuring that rerun will get along well with what cable networks are deeming their first priorities: their original programs.
For NPR News, I'm Jesse Baker.