Saturday, March 31, 2007


In the movie Back to the Future, Marty McFly (who travelled back in time from the Eighties to the Fifties) remarks to his mother's family that he must have seen a then brand new episode of The Honeymooners "on a rerun." His mother's father (and future grandfather) replies, "What's a rerun?" In reality this is a bit of an anachronism. Even in 1955, almost everyone would know what a rerun was.

That is not to say that reruns had been around for a long time in 1955. On radio, reruns were not unknown, but they were very, very uncommon. Much of this was due to limitations in the technology of the time. Until the development of magnetic tape, radios shows would have to be recorded on expensive and fragile 16 inch discs. When magnetic tape was introduced in the late Forties, television was just starting to take away radio's audience. Reruns were then a rarity in the Golden Age of Radio.

This certainly would not be the case with television, although it took some time before the practice of repeating shows would become commonplace. In its infancy, most programming on television was aired live. The reasons for this were purely economic. Filming was more expensive than simply airing shows live (videotape would not be available until later). It must be added that film would have also meant that the networks would have had to dealt with Hollywood, who at that time regarded television as a bitter rival. Before reruns could become common, filmed TV series would have to become the dominant source of programming on television.

The move towards filmed TV series would happen gradually, over many years. Among the pioneers in the field was Frederick Ziv. Ziv had seen some success in radio syndication, and in 1949 decided to expand into television. Naturally, to be syndicated to various local stations across the country, the shows produced by Ziv would have to be filmed. Since the shows were filmed, they could easily be rerun. And Ziv Television Productions reaped nearly all of its profits from reruns.

This is not to say that Frederick Ziv was the only television producer aware of the advantages of film. The first filmed network series was Fireside Theatre, which debuted in 1949 (a full two years before I Love Lucy). A year later saw the debut of You Bet Your Life, the legendary game show hosted by Groucho Marx. The series was filmed, allowing for two things. The first was the ability of the producers to edit out any of Groucho's more risque comments. The second was that the show could be rerun. Indeed, You Bet Your Life is one of the earliest, if not possibly the earliest, American network TV show to be repeated during the summer months. In the early days of television, when TV shows went off the air for the summer, their time slots would be taken by summer replacement shows. As the Fifties passed and more series were shot on film, summers would increasingly become dominated by summer reruns. By 1956, summer repeats outnumbered original programming by a large margin.

As much as some people might complain about summer reruns, there have actually been shows that have been saved by them. When it debuted mid-season on CBS, All in the Family initially did poorly in the ratings. It would not become a hit until it was rerun in the summer. During its first season, the ratings for Cheers were so low that NBC nearly cancelled the show. Fortunately, its ratings rose dramatically during the summer rerun season. As much as many might dislike summer reruns, they can save shows that sometimes deserve to be saved.

Regardless, the dominance of filmed series would be assured with the success of Amos and Andy and I Love Lucy. Debuting a few months before I Love Lucy, the television adaptation of the notorious radio show actually predates I Love Lucy in using the multicamera setup. Protests from the NAACP would force CBS to cancel the series, still enormously popular, two years into its run. The NAACP would not keep the series off the air, however, as in 1953 CBS would make its 78 episodes available to local stations (it would remain in syndication until 1966, when CBS finally bowed to public pressure and withdrew it). In other words, Amos and Andy became the first syndicated, network rerun in the history of American television. It would not be the last. My Little Margie and other filmed sitcoms would soon enter the syndication market. These shows, like the majority of syndicated, network reruns to follow, would be "stripped" on local stations--that is, scheduled to air five days a week (Monday through Friday).

The advent of syndicated network reruns would have a profound effect on television. Indeed, it put a serious dent in the market for original syndicated programming. In 1955 Ziv Television Productions was the biggest independent producer of programming in the United States. By 1959 the company was in such dire straits that Frederick Ziv sold the company to United Artists. Syndicated reruns would also prove to be a boon to the independent stations which sprang up in the Sixties and Seventies. I remember the programing of both KPLR in St. Louis and KMBA in Kansas City consisted largely of network reruns--everything from Gilligan's Island to The Beverly Hillbillies to The Wild Wild West to Star Trek.

With filmed series coming to dominate television and the success of reruns syndicated to local stations, it would not be long before the networks would begin using reruns not simply as filler during the summer months, but as programming during the day time as well. NBC was the first network to do so, debuting an umbrella title they called Comedy Time, under which they reran various sitcoms which had gone off the air. It debuted May 14, 1956, with I Married Joan as its first series. Running until 1958, such shows as Topper, Private Secretary, and It's a Great Life aired under the title. In 1957, CBS started rerunning I Love Lucy on its daytime schedule, where it stayed for eight years. From the Sixties into the Nineties, the networks would fill blank spots in their schedules with reruns of sitcoms (some of them still on the air). Over the years I can remember watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, M*A*S*H, and several other sitcoms on daytime network television. As the networks cut back on their daytime programming, such reruns disappeared.

Of course, as time has passed the number of reruns on television has increased dramatically. In the Fifties, a full season of a filmed series might consist of as many as 39 episodes, with 13 weeks in the summer devoted to reruns. By the Sixties this number had dropped considerably. In their first seasons Bewitched and Gilligan's Island had only 36 episodes each. In its first season Star Trek only had 29. The number of episodes produced for a given series would decrease even more in the Seventies and Eighties. Now it is not unusual for a show to have as few as 22 episodes produced per season. As a result of fewer new episodes being made each season, there are naturally more reruns to fill the gaps. In the Sixties it was rare to see reruns of an ongoing series prior to the summer. By the Seventies it was not uncommon to see them in December and January. Now it sometimes seems as if there are more reruns aired in a season than original episodes.

It must also be pointed out that the market for reruns has changed dramatically. Independent stations were slowly shoved out by the rise of new networks (Fox, UPN, the WB), but their place has largely been taken by cable channels. Since their inception, such cable channels as the USA Network, TBS, and TNT largely depended on reruns for much of their programming. There is even still a market for older TV series. Nickelodeon started showing reruns of classic TV shows at night under the heading "Nick at Nite" in 1985. It has been around ever since. Indeed, it was so successful that it spun off another cable channel dedicated entirely to reruns of classic shows. Started in 1996, TV Land is among the most successful cable channels around. And it is not alone. The AmericanLife TV Network (originally The Nostalgia Channel, and later GoodLife TV) consists of reruns of such shows as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., F Troop, Harry O, and Kung Fu.

Syndicated network reruns have not only given shows that were successful in their initial runs a second life, but even shows that were not so successful. Some have even had more success in off-network syndicated reruns than they ever had in their initial runs. I Dream of Jeannie was only moderately successful in its first run on NBC, but became one of the most successful sitcoms in syndication of all time. Although now considered a classic, The Odd Couple suffered from low ratings throughout its five year run, but it went onto a very successful syndication run. Perhaps the perfect example of a show given new life through off network reruns is Star Trek. The series suffered from low ratings throughout its three year run (during its most successful season, its first, it only ranked #52 out of all the shows on the air for the year) and was nearly cancelled more than once. Once its reruns were in syndication, however, Star Trek became an outright phenomenon.

Reruns have existed for over fifty years. And there can be little doubt that they will continue to exist as long as there is television. And while many might complain about the reruns that air on the networks throughout the television season, it must be pointed out that modern American pop culture is largely indebted to them. Without reruns, Gilligan's Island would not still be airing today. We could not tune in to TV Land to watch The Addams Family. And Star Trek may well have been forgotten.


Sheila West said...

This is a great essay and easilly publication quaility. If not as a magazine article, it could probably make it into a text book on American television.

Did you write it yourself? Are you a film student or self-taught on the history of American television?

Terence Towles Canote said...

I wrote it myself, as I do practically everything on the blog. I am a writer who majored in Film and Television in college.

Sheila West said...

Well, you are now at the top of my "must read on a daily basis" list.