Top-Rated ABC Shows Drop Dramatically During Off Weeks

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NEW YORK ( -- Ratings for ABC's hot properties "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" have cooled since the network began airing repeats of the shows.
Repeats of 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Lost' drop the network's weekly ratings by as much as 15%.

A recent analysis by MediaVest found repeats of the two ABC hits can drop the network’s weekly ratings by 15%.

50% drop off
Normally a weekly fluctuation wouldn’t catch the eye of the research team at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest but the week of Oct. 24 was different. ABC aired repeats of TV’s No. 2 and No. 3 hits, and each retained less than 50% of their season-to-date first-run audience levels -- far less than other drama repeats that week. The top-rated show season-to-date, CBS’s “CSI,” for example, boasted roughly 80% retention.

The value of this retention gap, MediaVest found, is roughly the average of a prime-time program on any of the three major networks -- a 3.5 adult 18-to-49 rating. ABC’s hits are among the most expensive of the fall season. The average cost of a 30-second spot in “Desperate Housewives” is $439,499, while the same ad in “Lost” costs buyers $333,166, according to Advertising Age’s fall pricing chart.

And while low-rated repeats of two of TV’s hottest shows is a problem, most networks would give their left programming arm to have such a variable ratings story. But it can cause buyers fits as they try to predict the network’s week-to-week ratings fluctuations.

Not just the game
A few weeks ago, for example, ABC programmed a repeat of “Lost” opposite a World Series game and the drama retained 37% of its season-to-date average audience. “We were sure that was because of the [show’s] continuous storyline but also partly because of baseball,” said John Spiropolous, VP-director of group research, MediaVest. “Then the next week its ratings went down further. You have to stop and think, ‘OK, what’s going on here?’”

Such a drop in ratings is rare, mostly because their primary cause -- heavily serialized storylines -- is rare. “‘Lost’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’ are just short of ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ in terms of serialization,” said Tim Brooks, exec VP-research at Lifetime Television and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” “TV has always shied away from that because these kinds of shows had terrible syndication histories, didn’t repeat well and made for a tough economic model.”

Instead, networks favored self-contained shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” where storylines generally wrap within the episode. For advertisers, Mr. Spiropolous said, “that gives you a certain level of comfort -- when you go in and buy this program the audience isn’t going to fall apart enough under repeats.” At MediaVest, Mr. Spiropolous has developed a research product called MCubed, which considers 12 weighted factors, to help predict such variances in serialized shows.

An ABC spokeswoman had no comment.

To be sure, agencies and networks calculate repeats into their ratings estimates and guarantees, respectively. So advertisers buying into the shows likely get the total gross ratings points they were expecting. But advertisers aren’t told during the upfront exactly when originals and repeats are scheduled -- mostly because the networks themselves don’t know exactly how they’re going to be scheduled -- and ratings estimates don’t help the movie marketer who’s counting on a big Wednesday night splash on “Lost” to help fuel opening day sales.

“If you get stuck with a repeat of ‘Lost,’ that’s a lot of points you’re missing and you can’t get make goods fast enough to make up for it,” Mr. Spiropolous said.

Some networks have juggled scheduling in an attempt to curb fluctuations. Fox, for example, now airs all 24 episodes of “24” in the spring without repeats. And, of course, agencies can count on networks to air original episodes during sweeps.

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