First-run programming invariably tops the ratings, but a large chunk of the typical broadcast day is made up of repeat programming. Is that inevitably bad news for the TV networks and their viewers?
At Lifehacker, we've been known to complain now and again about the relatively limited catch-up options offered online by commercial networks. While Seven, Nine and Ten do all offer online catch-up for some content, none holds a candle to the ABC's iView service in terms of breadth of content or ability to find an ISP that doesn't include those viewings in your monthly download quota.
One cynical but possibly accurate response from the commercial networks might be: "Why worry about whether you can catch up online? If it's a popular show, we'll be repeating it on air soon enough."
With some classes of show, that's undoubtedly the case. A recent check by the Sun-Herald found that within the space of seven days, 53 different episodes of the Simpsons were broadcast on Channel Ten and Fox8, while 33 episodes of Two And A Half Men showed up on Nine and Arena. Both US sitcoms are in current production and have healthy back catalogues, but at those rates more than an entire season's worth of episodes (typically around 22 shows) is being broadcast each week.
Figures like that might suggest we live in a repeat-heavy universe, but the reality is more complicated. In effect, what we have in Australia is prime-time television that runs at two speeds.
On the one hand, there's so-called "event" programming, which people feel compelled to watch as it's being broadcast, and which invariably scores the highest ratings. That includes sports, reality and competition programming (such as MasterChef and its forthcoming kids spin-off), and the very occasional drama series (Underbelly and, perhaps, Packed To The Rafters being prominent local examples).
In most cases, non-fiction event programming isn't going to repeated after its original broadcast run on a mainstream free-to-air channel. We haven't yet been subjected to repeats of MasterChef Series 1 on Ten, for instance, though it's not entirely impossible to imagine it showing up on a daytime slot (and almost inevitable that it will end up on a pay TV food channel at some point). But because so much of the structure of these shows is based on not knowing the outcome, repeat options don't look so appealing. (The one partial exception is when a network wants to make sure people commit to a series early on, and run repeats if the first few episodes haven't rated as highly as anticipated.)
The rules appear to be somewhat different when it comes to fictional content (sitcoms and dramas). In that case, while we're always eager for new episodes, repeats are an accepted part of the landscape — hence 53 episodes of the Simpsons in a week.
In part, that reflects economic reality. It's cheaper on a per-hour basis to produce "non-scripted" content like MasterChef or The X Factor, so selling repeats isn't such a crucial part of the business model for the producers. From a business point of view, that's a major incentive.
But the situation also reflects the greater attention to detail in a well-crafted sitcom or drama than is often evident in non-fiction shows. Even if I've seen a given Simpsons episode before, there'll be one-liners or background details that I've forgotten which make a return visit worthwhile. It's worth noting that despite the endless repeats, such shows are also strong sellers on DVD, suggesting that we're happy to experience them more than once.
If television is going to reflect society, there'll always be a need for new content. But while I wouldn't personally want 33 separate encounters with Charlie Harper in a week, in a multi-channel universe there could be much nastier outcomes.
How do you feel about repeats? Which shows do you think get over-exposed in this way? And what factors influence you buying a show on DVD? Tell us in the comments.
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