Reality TV Reruns: Don't Vote Them Off

The genre's potential in reruns is better than many might expect. But the top reality TV shows aren't the biggest winners the second time around

In the decade since Survivor set off a TV revolution leading to the birth of Boy Meets Boy, Scott Baio Is 45 and Single, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and some 400 other reality shows, the genre has operated on a straightforward business model: Make shows with production costs low enough to compensate for their lack of earning potential in reruns. Producing a reality show costs about one-third of what a successful scripted show costs.

Nonetheless, the aftermarket value of reality TV shows is not to be dismissed entirely. Viewing patterns suggest that a secondary business model is developing within the reality TV genre in which cheap-to-make cable shows—especially those with complete plot lines within single episodes—have greater rerun potential than expensive sagas from the big networks.

American Idol Redux: Cut to the Chase

For example, the Fox Reality Channel (NWS), which airs a mix of original and acquired reality programs 24 hours a day, does not offer repeats of Survivor, even though the contest show has enjoyed 18 highly rated seasons on CBS (CBS) and recently was named the best reality show of all time by Entertainment Weekly (TWX). "For some of the shows like Survivor that have done extremely well in first runs on network TV, the distributors want a premium on them for reruns, but they have not justified that premium," says David Lyle, president of Los Angeles-based Fox Reality.

Even Fox's American Idol franchise, the most profitable and successful of any scripted or reality show now on TV, may face limitations in the aftermarket. "People are not going to have that much interest in watching an entire season of American Idol for the second time," says Pat McDonough, senior vice-president for insights and analysis at the Nielsen Co., which measures TV ratings.

That's not to say there's no market in Idol reruns. TV Guide Network's Idol Rewind, a show that features clips from old seasons of American Idol along with present-day interviews with past contestants who reminisce about the competition, is faring well. Nielsen data from the first half of 2009 shows that the number of households tuned into Idol Rewind on TVGN was nearly double the number who watched American Idol on Fox Reality Channel. And folks who missed entire seasons or even single episodes of American Idol may be interested in the reruns.

Small Bites for Video Snackers

"Because of 'video snacking,' we have to look at old shows in a different way," says Jack Myers, a media economist at Myers Publishing, an economic consulting firm in New York. In other words, if a three-minute video of Adam Lambert singing Whole Lotta Love catches the interest of a YouTube (GOOG) viewer who missed Season 8 of American Idol, he or she may very well feel compelled to watch the whole season once it's shown in reruns. Or might buy the DVDs.

The potential rerun-value weakness of shows like American Idol and Survivor lies in their lack of suspense, Thompson says. "The least 'rerun-able' reality shows tend to be season-long vote-out shows like Survivor and AI, because once the competition is over, it's over," Thompson says. Daniel Manu, director of the Web site Television Without Pity, which offers episode synopses and message boards for fans of dozens of TV series, agrees.

"I think it's a challenge for re-airs of competitive reality shows to perform well long after their ultimate outcomes have been decided," says Manu. "Idol Rewind mainly works because it offers a fresh perspective on past seasons via new interviews with the participants."

Reality TV shows featuring shorter-term competitions, however, aren't necessarily laboring under the same handicap. This accounts in part for the sunny outlook TV industry watchers have on the rerun potential of cooking programs. Shows like the Food Network's (SNI) Iron Chef "have the potential to go on and on," Myers says. "You can put them on anytime or anyplace. It's a cooking competition and there's a drama and you can tune in and tune out, and each show stands alone." Another advantage for culinary-themed reality shows: Most people cook at least occasionally and can perhaps derive some edification from reruns, whereas a relatively small sector of the population cares how to divine good luck from a spirit stone in the wilderness. Bravo's (GE) Top Chef has performed well in ratings, and Lyle names Hell's Kitchen as one of Fox Reality's current top 10 rerun shows. "Where there's a recipe, I think there can be a shelf life," says Jessica Reif Cohen, senior media analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC).

Some of the shows expected to do well in reruns are those targeted toward a niche audience, even when they've never garnered impressive ratings as first-runs. "A show may not have high ratings, but it's good for the advertiser to reach a certain age group," says McDonough. "People can find their favorites and DVR them." A wedding planner who wants to see WE tv's Bridezillas will seek it out.

The Genre Is Here to Stay

Thanks to the economic recession, viewers can count on many more reality shows to come. "There's a keener focus on costs in the environment, so there are a lot of reasons [producers] would focus on cheaper shows," says Cohen. As for the reality TV genre in general—low end, high end, and everything in between—it's here to stay as well. "There's no evidence that supersaturation of the market has occurred," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "Maybe in five years we'll see fewer reality shows in number, but they are never going away. They have joined police shows and sitcoms as a permanent TV genre."

Entertainment industry observers say the profitability of other reality TV reruns needs to be measured in staying power. Many believe that reality shows akin to sitcoms or daytime dramas—such as MTV's (VIA) The Osbournes or Bravo's The Real Wives of Orange County—hold long-term promise. "I think candid reality shows have much more potential as syndicated fare for local broadcast affiliates, because they're essentially soap operas divorced from real life and often make for compulsive viewing in a 'guilty pleasure' sort of way," Manu says.

Thompson believes the combination of humor and celebrity gives an "almost sitcom" status to shows like Breaking Bonaduce. "You can easily watch a sitcom four or five times," he says. "It's not unpleasant to see The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Seinfeld 10 times." But, according to David Lyle, the reality show with the most durability is one that's funny only in a morbid way. "Cops is a very well organized machine that gives what it needs to," he says. "It could go on forever."

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.