If It's March, It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Ratings Prove Networks Need to Break the Post-Sweeps Rerun Cycle

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This week, MediaWorks brings you our second Rash Report, in which one brave media buyer, John Rash of Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, dives into a week's worth of broadcast TV ratings in order to illuminate those that delivered, and those that didn't. Look for the Rash Report every Friday.

MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- It's the first full week of April. Is March madness finally over?
CBS ran original programming Thursday night, as its 'CSI' (left) was able to hold off ABC's rerun of 'Grey's Anatomy.'
CBS ran original programming Thursday night, as its 'CSI' (left) was able to hold off ABC's rerun of 'Grey's Anatomy.' Credit: CBS/ABC

No, not the NCAA Basketball Tournament. That was great, for fans, for Florida and for CBS, which, along with the Gators, won Monday night with a 7.1/19 rating and share (based on Nielsen "live" ratings) in the advertising-centric adult 18-49 demographic.

Rather, the other March madness -- a post-February sweeps schedule replete with repeats. Did that shower on into April as well?

18 hours of reruns
Apparently so, according to an analysis of this week's schedule: Of the 54 hours of network prime time since Sunday, 18 cumulative hours -- or one-third -- were repeats. All the networks gave their viewers a sense of deja vu. The problem is particularly acute now, between the February and May sweeps, because the other months have or had so much new to offer. December's slate had holiday specials, January's featured football and the end of May usually brings summer series.

With each network buying programming from each other's parent studios, this isn't a phenomenon overly associated with one channel. Instead, this is a systemic industry issue, built into a business model from the era of three networks and three-martini lunches.

But it is one that is untenable, now that the Big Three has become the Big 300 networks and viewers have so many more options beyond TV.

A contrast between Sunday and Monday illustrates the difference: Sunday's top three programs (ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and Fox's "Family Guy") were repeats and all tied with a 3.4 adult 18-49 rating.

Monday gets fresh
Conversely, Monday's top three shows spanned three networks and had an average demo delivery of 5.1, 50% higher than Sunday -- which should be one of the highest rated nights of the week. Beyond the Gators cutting down the nets on CBS, there was cutting the rug on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" (4.5/13) and Fox's cutting-edge drama "24," which achieved a 3.8/10. Three shows, three networks and three genres, but one commonality: fresh episodes.

Last night's "Fast Affiliate Ratings" reconfirms the rerun challenge: CBS won the night with a 4.9/14, nearly doubling ABC's 2.5/7. Normally ABC's bold Thursday programming moves would deliver demos to meet -- or beat -- CBS, but original episodes of "Survivor" (4.2/13, which, if the national numbers hold, would place it ninth for the week), "CSI" (6.6/18, good for fifth) and "Shark" (4.0/11, rounding out the week's top 10) were benefited by second-showings of "Ugly Betty" (1.7/5) and "Grey's Anatomy" (3.0/8), both of which had half of their season-to-date averages.

The rest of the top 10 followed the same pattern, with reality shows such as Fox's "American Idol" a one-two punch on Tuesday (9.3/27) and Wednesday (9.3/25). Distinct dramas such as Fox's "House" ranked third with a 8.1/21, and ABC's "Lost" (4.4/12) finished eighth.

Even the struggling sitcom can crack the top 10 if it is an original episode as Fox's "'Til Death" came to life with a 5.4/15 (not that following Wednesday's "Idol" hurts, either).

CW goes missing
The CW, which usually finishes fifth, is missing from the list despite pop phenomena "America's Next Top Model," which strutted with an impressive 2.3/7, placing it ninth out of 16 shows on Wednesday, a notable audience accomplishment for a new network.

The CW's ratings challenges were exacerbated by the freshman network running the stalest programming, with seven of 11 hours (64% of the schedule) repeats. This compares to 34.3% of repeats on ABC's slate, CBS running a quarter of its prime-time hours as encore presentations, and Fox rerunning 18%; NBC presented the most first-run programs with a relatively low repeat factor of 15.6%.

Warmer weather and hotter ratings are on the horizon for May, as season finales and sweeps will clean out the rerun cycle.

So, ending the enduring business practice that results in repeating so many programs won't happen overnight. But if the recent program development meetings are any indication -- with each network aggressively innovating commercial pods, multimedia platforms and new genres -- it's likely this kind of March madness will someday be addressed as well.

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NOTE: A share is a percentage of TV households that have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all TV households, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with a TV. Ad deals are often negotiated on the basis of live-viewing figures, though Nielsen Media Research and the broadcast networks also release viewership statistics that include live-plus-same-day playback on digital video recorders. All the ratings listed here are live.

John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.
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