ABC has spiced up week-old episodes of "Lost" by running onscreen commentary that offers viewers more background on the action taking place and even points out a few clues to the story that might go unseen by the untrained eye. CBS, meanwhile, has run themed trivia questions and behind-the-scenes notes about production on episodes of both "Ghost Whisperer" (where the comments were called "Love Notes") and "CSI: Miami" ("Bullet Points").
Getting couch potatoes to take a gander at programs that ran weeks, months or even years ago has never been easy. NBC breathlessly made a run at the task by telling viewers in the summer of 1997 that repeat episodes of its programs were "new to you" if they hadn't been watched before. But with networks still trying to fill their programming slates after the three-month writers strike, reruns are all they have for some time slots.
Networks "are all going to have to fill some holes, and they are going to have to be creative with how they go about it," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, exec VP at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA. The broadcast networks have come under more pressure to reduce costs while at the same time preventing the gradual erosion of ratings taking place as more viewers turn to the web or mobile devices for entertainment.
The situation could last into the fall, because many networks reduced the number of pilots they've ordered -- more fallout from the strike. Media buyers expect most broadcast networks to have empty patches in their schedules come September and believe these bell-and-whistle reruns might work as a temporary solution.
These "enhanced" repeats use tactics often seen in the marketing of DVDs. To entice viewers to rent or buy a DVD of a movie they may have seen in theaters or earlier seasons of a TV show, studios often include deleted scenes, commentary from actors or directors and original movie trailers. Ms. Caraccioli-Davis said networks might try to treat repeats as something ripe for "extended versions" or background scenes.
ABC's enhanced "Lost" episodes are designed to attract not only hard-core fans of the show who want to get a little extra but also new viewers who may need to get caught up, said Michael Benson, ABC Entertainment's exec VP-marketing, advertising and promotion.
According to Nielsen, ratings for the enhanced episodes have dropped off steadily since ABC aired a version of last year's third-season finale laden with plenty of onscreen chatter and historical context in late January. Enhanced versions of the programs airing in February typically snared less than half the audience for original episodes, according to Nielsen. ABC's Mr. Benson said the network is less concerned about the ratings, viewing the enhancements "as more of a marketing play for us." It's likely the network will run "enhanced" repeats of the show for the rest of this season, he said, though what happens next season is "something that has yet to be answered."
The CBS efforts might seem cut from the same cloth as VH1's old "Pop-Up Video." One "Bullet Point" on "CSI: Miami" told viewers that lead actor David Caruso once "appeared in the first installment of 'Rambo,' called 'First Blood,'" while a "Love Note" on "Ghost Whisperer" offered information about where the series is filmed. CBS said a network executive was not available to discuss the episodes.
Whether these efforts will prove sustainable over the long haul remains to be seen. One media buyer said the "enhanced" repeats work best in dramas with complicated plotlines, such as NBC's "Heroes" or CBS's "Jericho." The idea "is good for a core fan," said Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director of broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare. "I don't think it's going to work for 'Two and a Half Men.'"