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Repeating History

After the reality-TV craze hit in earnest a few years ago, some observers predicted that producers and networks were going to be sorry later on, because serialized contest shows would never sell into syndication once everyone knew who the winner was. Cable networks Outdoor Life Network and GSN proved them wrong this summer, acquiring the entire runs of Survivor and The Amazing Race to strip nightly.

The reruns are performing decently so far. OLN debuted Survivor commercial-free after Lance Armstrong’s final ride in the Tour de France on July 24 and received a 0.92 household rating, the highest-ever rated non-cycling event for the network.

GSN has averaged a 0.4 for The Amazing Race and a 0.22 rating for the key 18-49 demo, a 69% increase over its season-to-date average since it debuted July 11. GSN is airing the show nightly this summer and plans to run it six nights come fall when a new season of Race returns to CBS on Tuesday nights.

Executives are still divided about the whole concept of repurposing reality shows. Believers say the shows with the best production values, characters and stories can still have legs well after their initial runs. GSN had been in the market for a contest-type reality show for a while because it plays into its “Network for Games” brand, says CEO Rich Cronin.

“You could argue Amazing Race is really a spectacular global Beat the Clock,” says Cronin. “There are winners and losers and prizes, and all the elements that make a game show great, but it’s much bigger. To have all the worldwide travel, exotic locations and action really make it unique.”

Others say only a more compressed model, airing the shows within a few days after they premiere on broadcast makes sense, but that even that doesn’t always work. FX had huge success with Fear Factor reruns early on, but ratings tapered off quickly. The Apprentice repeated Friday nights on CNBC, just a night after the installments premiered on sister network NBC, also paled in comparison.

MTV: Music Television bought the syndication rights for the Britney Spears reality show Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, repeating them in May just eight days after they aired on UPN. VH1 acquired the rights for 77 episodes of America’s Top Model, including the upcoming fifth and sixth seasons, and is currently airing the first three seasons. The agreement allows VH1 to start on the fourth season in September just three months after UPN concludes its run of season five.

MTV Networks Music Group president of entertainment Brian Graden even bought the rights to repeat Tommy Lee Goes to College, about the Motley Crüe drummer enrolling at the University of Nebraska before seeing a single episode. VH1 will begin airing episodes just three days after they appear on NBC, beginning Tuesday, Aug. 16.

“I’m a fan of the compressed model for reality, and we’re getting some numbers there. So there is some value,” says Graden. “But I’m skeptical how long it will last.”

Quick-window reality acquisitions make sense for MTV and VH1, because they’re brands that are so driven by pop culture and an of-the-moment spirit, says Graden. Most other cable networks will find it much harder to find a reality shows to match their carefully carved niches. For instance, Court TV has no immediate plans to go after any reality shows aiming for a second wind. Instead the network investing in originals to build out its new “seriously entertaining” image in primetime.

“We believe in branding through unique and original programming,” says Marc Juris, general manager of programming and marketing for Court TV. “For us it’s about expanding our base of originals and increasing the dimensionality of our viewer experience.”

Juris says Court TV would much rather be in the opposite position, providing originals to be repurposed on broadcast. So far NBC has picked up short runs of true-case series Forensic Files and Psychic Detectives, the latter as a special promotion around Medium.

Keeping true to the brand and not sullying it by forcing a quick ratings-boosting show that doesn’t organically fit is paramount, say executives, particularly heading into a future where cable revenues will account for only a portion of a network’s earnings.

“We put our brand way ahead of ratings,” says Graden. “Especially as you go into a multiplatform world of mobile devices, online, etc., the brand will continue to take on a disproportional importance.”