A television program that airs one or more times following its first broadcast is known as a rerun or a repeat. In order for a program to be rerun it must have been recorded on film or videotape. Live telecasts, obviously, can not be rerun. The use of reruns is central to the programming and economic strategies of television in the United States and, increasingly, throughout the world.

In the early days of U.S. television, most programming was live. This necessitated the continuous production of new programs which, once aired, were gone. Certain program formats, such as variety, talk, public affairs, quiz, sports, and drama, dominated the airwaves. With the exception of variety and drama, each of these formats is inexpensive to produce, therefore the creation of live weekly or daily episodes worked fairly well for broadcasters. Even the production costs for variety shows could be reduced over time with the repeated use of sets and costumes.

Production of dramatic programming, however, was more expensive. Most dramatic series were "anthologies"--a different story was programmed each week, with different characters, and often times, different talent. The costs involved in creating each of these plays was considerable and could rarely be reduced, as in the case of variety programs, by repeated use of the durable properties. Because of the expense, dramatic programs decreased, and the number of other less expensive types of programs increased during the first decade of television.

During the early 1950s, however, several weekly prime time series, most notably I Love Lucy, began filming episodes instead of airing live programs. This allowed producers to create fewer than 52 episodes a year, yet still present weekly episodes throughout the year. They could produce 39 new episodes and repeat 13 of those, usually during the summer months when viewership was lower. While some expenses, for additional payments to creative personnel, are involved in airing reruns, the cost is almost 75% less than that incurred in presenting a new first-run episode. The practice proved so successful that by the end of the 1950s there was very little live entertainment programming left on U.S. television, and the television industry, which had been well established in New York, had shifted its center to Hollywood, the center of U.S. film production.

By the 1970s most network prime time series were producing only 26 new episodes each year, repeating each episode once (the 26/26 model). And by the 1980s, the standard prime time model was 22/22 with specials or limited series occupying the remaining weeks.

But the shift to film or videotape as the primary form of television production also turned out to have benefits far exceeding the reduction of production costs and modifications of the programming schedule. Reruns and repeats are not used merely to ease production schedules and cut costs. By contractual arrangement episodes usually return to the control of the producer after two network showings. They may then be licensed for presentations by other television distributors. This strategy is financially viable only after several years of a successful network run, when enough episodes of a television program are accumulated to make the series valuable to other programmers. It does lead to the possibility, however, that reruns of a program can be in syndication forever and almost anywhere. A common industry anecdote claims--and it may be true--that I Love Lucy is playing somewhere in the world at any given moment of the day.

The development of the rerun system, particularly as it supports syndication, has become the economic foundation on which the American television industry does business. Because networks, the original distributors of television programs, rarely pay the full production costs for those programs, independent producers and/or studios must create programs at a deficit. That deficit can only be recouped if the program goes into syndication (not a foregone outcome). If the program is sold into syndication the profits may be huge, sufficient to pay off the cost of deficit financing for the original production and to support the development of other series and the programming of less successful programs that may never be syndicated. This entire system is dependent on a sufficient market for rerun programs, a market traditionally composed of independent television stations and the international television systems, and on an economical means of reproduction.

Initially, film was more desirable than videotape as a means of storing programs because film production contracts called for lower residual payments--the payments made to performers in the series when episodes are repeated. Programs produced on film were under the jurisdiction of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which required lower residual payments than did the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), which oversaw programs produced on videotape. By the mid-1970s residual costs for film and taped performances evened out and more and more programs are now produced on or transferred to videotape for syndication purposes.

In addition to their use in prime time, reruns are scheduled in all other dayparts by the networks. Several unions have petitioned the FCC in an attempt to restrict network use of reruns. Their claim is that the use of reruns results in a loss of jobs because it leads to less original production. Needless to say, all of these attempts have failed.

With the tremendous growth of television distribution outlets throughout the world in the 1980s--growth often founded on the expansion of cable television systems and the multi-channel environment--additional markets for reruns of old network series were created. So long as these venues continue to increase, the financial basis for American television production will continue to be stable. And as more and more countries establish large programming systems of their own, the amount of material available for second, third and continuing airings will continue to grow.

-Mitchell E. Shapiro


Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

"Brits Bank on Rerun Bonanza with U.S. Help." Variety (Los Angeles, California), 28 September 1992.

Godfrey, Donald G. Reruns on File: A Guide to Electronic Media Archives. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992.

Eastman, Susan T. Broadcast/Cable Programming: Strategies and Practices. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing, 1981; 4th edition, 1993.

Moore, Barbara. "The Cisco Kid and Friends: The Syndication of Television Series from 1948 to 1952." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Bowling Green, Ohio), 1980.

Nelson, Jenny L. "The Dislocation of Time: A Phenomenology of Television Reruns." Quarterly Review of Film and Video (Chur, Switzerland), October 1990.

Robins, J. Max. "Rerun Resurrection: Webs Favor Old Shows, Newsmags, to Summer Startups." Variety (Los Angeles, California), 27 June 1994.

Shales, Tom. "The Re Decade." Esquire (New York), March 1985. Simon, Ronald. "The Eternal Rerun: Oldies But Goodies." Television Quarterly (New York), 1986.

Story, David. America on the Rerun: TV Shows That Never Die. Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1993.

Williams, Phil. "Feeding Off the Past: The Evolution of the Television Rerun." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Winter 1994.


See also Prime Time Access Rule; Programming; Syndication