Survey Says Old Shows Rule

Reruns of Law & Order and CSI are legendary as cable saviors, but thanks to a new study, Warner Bros. is touting older product like Full House and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The study, commissioned by the studio, dispels myths about acquired programming on cable.

Conducted by marketing and consulting firm SmithGeiger through online interviews with 1,500 viewers, the Report on Television Viewing Habits shows that reruns of a series find substantial new viewership on cable while also boosting ratings for the show on broadcast. That lends support for the broadcast/cable strategy that began years ago with Law & Order and is now widely imitated. It also demonstrates that cable originals benefit by having reruns as a lead-in.

Warner Bros. execs believe that some of the findings clear up incorrect assumptions. “There are lots of misperceptions about the role of acquired programming on cable,” says Bruce Rosenblum, executive VP of Warner Bros. Media Research. “These shows are workhorses.”

Among the report's findings, the Web proved to be an increasingly significant promotional vehicle, ranking third (with 45% of respondents mentioning it) behind promos in new series (79%) and reruns on cable (70%) for new programs. The Web ranked ahead of magazines, radio, billboards and newspapers—all of which had surpassed it in previous surveys.

Additionally, the survey reveals that familiarity is a powerful motivator, with more than double the respondents (93%) more likely to watch reruns than originals (46%) on cable. Other findings: DVRs do not significantly change viewer habits on cable, a majority of TV viewers turn to broadcast for originals and to cable for acquired fare, and primetime viewers are more likely to turn to cable networks (52%) than to broadcast (48%).

Combined with Nielsen data, the survey reveals that viewers under 35 are drawn to cable reruns that likely first aired before they were old enough to watch. That includes 79% of the viewership for Full House on ABC Family, 69% for Fresh Prince on Nick at Nite, and 43% for The Dukes of Hazzard on CMT.

Meanwhile, the study shows that cable networks have been successful using acquired series to launch originals: TNT's The Closer retains 65% of its Law & Order lead-in; Sci Fi Channel's Eureka keeps 78% of the Dead Like Me audience.

“Cable networks have been very effective at using acquired series as a platform for launching their originals and building their viewer base,” says Liz Huszarik, senior VP, Warner Bros. Media Research.

Some questioned the survey's timing because respondents were questioned in August, when broadcast reruns are the norm and cable originals perform strongly. But Warner Bros. executives believe that didn't skew the answers since results were based in part on full-season ratings and there's still a significant amount of original broadcast programming, including Fox's primetime launch, to counter the shift of viewers to cable in late summer.

Still, others found the results less than eye-opening. One industry executive called the conclusion that acquired series outperform originals on cable a “no-brainer.” While cable networks rely on originals like FX's The Shield to reinforce their brands and appease operators, syndication consultant Chuck Larsen says, their importance is overstated: “With few exceptions, original programming [on cable] doesn't attract large audiences. Network series are already branded in people's minds.”

But Eric Frankel, president, Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution (which licenses 350 series and 3,500 movie titles to 65 cable networks), called some of the findings “fascinating.” He's eager to take the results to the marketplace: “We will go out to our clients and walk them through this.”