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The Downfall of TV Repeats - How Dick Wolf & Reality TV Are Destroying My Ability to Waste Time
I've said for years that Dick Wolf is out for total domination of television. He won't be happy until there's a Law & Order on every night. And NBC, the network which used to broadcast Dateline a minimum of 10 hours a week, would probably be okay with that.
At the very least, Wolf wants his own cable channel. He's almost there, too. Three Law & Orders, a new one coming in the fall, Dragnet and if you throw in his first cop show, NY Undercover (back when Wolf was too "edgy" for the major networks and was relegated to FOX), you've got almost enough for 24 hours a day.
This would all be fine and dandy, especially for Dick Wolf, except for the fact that he's rapidly becoming the only game in Syn City - syndication, that is. Turn on your cable tv any hour of the day and I'll bet you folding money, you can find an episode of Law & Order on somewhere. And if you can't find that, look for the same episode of That '70s Show to be on at least three channels simultaneously.
Overexposure isn't new with syndicated shows. The X-Files was everywhere for a while too. I remember far back in the mists of time known as the late 1980s, you couldn't escape Murder, She Wrote or Who's the Boss? reruns either. The thing was, back then you could just be patient. Give it a season or two, the more recent tv series would hit syndication, and there'd be something new to watch.
Herein lies the problem.
There are no new shows. The networks have jumped so wholeheartedly onto the reality tv bandwagon, there's little time left in the schedule for new shows, especially since old ones like NYPD Blue and Fraiser, which should've been mercy-killed years ago, are still being kept alive. Between aging behemoths and all the "what stupid stuff can we get regular people to do for money?" shows, there's not much space left for developing new material.
Now, it's almost too easy to take cheap shots at reality tv. Even the people who watch it religiously will apologize for it. "I know it's stupid, but I can't seem to stop watching." That's ok. I feel that way about VH-1 (And they're using subliminal messages. I swear it. There is no other reason for me to have watched the entire Behind the Music on The Goo Goo Dolls.) Everyone laughs at how bad reality shows are, but the networks keep 'em coming. At the very least, Americans have shown a little taste. While Joe Millionaire was a success, Are You Hot? was not. We have some standards. They're low, but we have them.
Starting back with ABC's disastrous expansion of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the broadcast networks have gone whole hog with reality shows. The reason for this is the same as every other reason for every other bad network decision: money. Reality shows are cheaper to produce. No actors and no writers means no union wages to pay. I haven't done any research but I'd imagine that most reality shows aren't coming from veteran producers like John Wells or David Milch, who also command large paychecks. I doubt reality shows go through a large development process with test audiences and such either.
Reality tv is cheap in the now. But it's kind of like renting an apartment in a skeezy section of town. Sure, it's not costing much. It serves the current purpose. But long-term, you're throwing that money down the drain and will never get it back. Plus, there's always the chance of getting killed over a parking space.
Everyone in the industry knows that television shows do not make money off their initial showings. The real profits come from selling the rights for syndication. First run syndication is the cash cow for television series. That's where the money comes back to the studio. Cable networks look to buy series that have enough episodes (generally at least 5 seasons worth) and will draw enough viewers.
And as a friend of mine pointed out, no one is going to want to watch 66 hours of Survivor when we already know who won.
Basically, most reality shows will never air again. That means the networks may have spent less on their programming, but they'll never be able to make the money back.
Now, one assumes that people who achieve the status of network executive must have to work their way up to that position. They must know a thing or two about the industry they are immersed in. Someone's got to be paying attention.
On top of the reality glut, networks are also failing to support the few shows that make it on the air.
For example, the 2002-03 season started out with 49 dramas on the air. Out of that, 20 were new. Only six of those survived the season. All the rest were cancelled, some more mercifully than others (Birds of Prey memorabilia, anyone?) As previously mentioned, a show only gets into syndication heaven by surviving long enough to make it worth buying. Without a supportive network, series have little chance of making it until New Year's. If a show can't survive November sweeps, it can't get to a point where it actually produces a profit or even breaks even for the networks and their production arms. And yet, the cycle continues, shows get killed off before they have a chance to settle into a groove, and more reality shows arrive, further choking the present and future of television.
No wonder the cable networks are starting to either make their own series (FX's Lucky, USA's The Dead Zone) or buy the imported stuff (A&E is now showing MI-5, aka Spooks in the UK). Heck, even the reality shows coming out of cable are more interesting (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a rare reality series that can be rerun a few times, because viewers just can't catch all the catty asides of the Fab 5 the first time around). Not to mention the tremendous surge in pay cable creativity, which proves that Americans want their entertainment profane, violent and well written and we're not ashamed to shell out for it. Especially since we're not getting it for free.
Viewers won't be getting much from the broadcast nets any time soon, either in regular prime time or in reruns. Gilmore Girls and The West Wing will hit syndication shortly, thank God. But even by the time I get tired of all that chattering, there still won't be anything new in syndication to watch.
Of course, we'll always have Dick Wolf.DarkLady
~ August, 2003