The major networks' reliance on cheap, unscripted and potentially controversial programs as summer fare is related to a more pointed crisis that directly affects their bottom line: a sharp decline in viewing of second and third runs of even their most popular dramatic programs.
Since the official television season ended in late May, ratings for repeats of hit dramatic series have experienced a noticeable drop compared with the corresponding period in 2000.
"That's a bigger problem than how many rats are covering somebody," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, alluding to complaints regarding the content of NBC's fill-in show Fear Factor. "If we can't repeat these programs that, as we go forward, is going to fundamentally change the economics of this business."
Networks pay a license fee to studios that covers two runs of each series, and they have historically relied upon revenue from the second showings to offset rising production costs of programs such as The West Wing and The X-Files. In many instances, a network doesn't turn a profit on expensive one-hour shows until episodes air a second time.
This summer's ratings tell a sorry tale: ER, the most-watched drama from October through May, is averaging 8.7-million viewers, a 15 percent decrease compared with summer 2000. Viewing is also down significantly for reruns of The Practice (28 percent), Judging Amy (26 percent), Touched by an Angel (21 percent), The X-Files (20 percent) and Law & Order (12 percent).
_ Times wires