Nets look for ways to rerun reruns

Execs are 'throwing out rulebook'


NEW YORK -- Reruns are getting a rethink.

With the strike forcing networks to rely more heavily on reruns, a scheduling backwater is suddenly being transformed into high art.

Across the television world, programming execs are plotting to find the best way to parcel out reruns in the manner of a farmer preparing for a drought. And once they settle on the episodes, they're seeking creative ways to make the old seem fresh.

"Nothing is off the table," a network exec said. "We have to throw out the rulebook."

The rethink is sufficiently thorough that even outdated fashions like movies-of-the-week and theatricals are being contemplated for primetime.

Of course, the strategizing is happening first at late-night, where networks have already begun to define their plans. At Comedy Central, execs are planning a slew of theme weeks in the hopes of maintaining audience, including viewer-chosen episodes, a full week of "The Colbert Report" featuring episodes in which Stephen Colbert sings and a "Face-Off Week" featuring contentious interviews on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

The cable network's challenges prefigure what will soon be a hurdle for all nets across all dayparts: how to make the strike as invisible as possible to the viewer by using just a limited set of programs.

"We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes," said David Bernath, Comedy Central senior vp programming. "There are just a lot of people who haven't seen these shows, and we want to find the best way to make sure they do."

On late-night series, some have speculated about splicing together segments from different episodes to capitalize on a particularly strong interview or quarter-hour (though few seem sure of the legal or production implications).

Another possibility raised in programming meetings: showing an episode from several years ago, in a kind of "Vintage Episode" play -- a bold move that would fly in the face of the long-held wisdom that viewers will find jarring the sight of Jay Leno or David Letterman without gray hair.

As it is in so many realms, the strike is turning simple questions into slippery ones.

When a small hole needs to be filled on a late-night show during Christmas week, the approach is usually simple: Take a few highly rated recent episodes and put them on the air.

But scheduling experts describe a more complex challenge during the strike, because without knowing how long the hiatus will last, it's hard to know what to air and what to keep in reserve.

Just a few days into the strike, NBC and CBS are displaying different rerun strategies.

CBS has gone deeper into the vault and taken somewhat lower-rated episodes for "Late Show With David Letterman" in the hope, presumably, of saving some nuts for winter.

For the first three episodes of the strike week, execs pulled from mid- to late September, with two of the episodes clocking in at 1.0 and 1.2 ratings among the 18-49 demo in their initial airing, about average for their respective days.

NBC, on the other hand, has pulled more recent and higher-rated episodes for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Reruns for the first three days of the strike were episodes that first aired just a few weeks ago, and two of the three were the highest-rated episodes for their days this season.

The early results favor CBS' tack: Leno's household rating in metered markets was down 15% so far in the strike, compared with last week's first-run episodes, while Letterman's was down only 9%.

"Jimmy Kimmel Live," meanwhile, is down about 11%, while one late-night beneficiary of the strike is ABC's "Nightline." The show's first-run episodes have ticked up 3% since the strike began.

The strategizing has also begun in primetime for cases where reality and news specials won't fit the bill.

Among the experiments being considered is programming the nets abandoned years ago -- including plays of theatrical movies, movies of the week and series marathons, a trick cable used to great effect before they jumped into originals.

"This is a chance to experiment in spots where you'd have had weakness," said a network exec. "But you have to come up with a balance. You don't want to break viewer patterns where you've had success."

Translation: Don't expect such hits as "Heroes," "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy" to move from their slots. In a strike, they may be among the few things that don't change.