Cable TV Is Increasingly Dominated By Re-Runs as Original Shows Flee to Streaming




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Cheerful family having popcorn while watching television at home

What’s the one thing that The Mandalorian on Disney+, Squid Game on Netflix, and The Boys on Amazon Prime have in common? They’re not found on cable television.

Increasingly, the buzziest and most-talked about scripted shows are found on streaming services, as media companies have spent billions of dollars on the kind of programming that will get you to sign up for a subscription to their service. But with all the money and talent flocking to streaming, cable networks are increasingly starving for resources. The result has been far fewer original shows and far more re-runs and other low-cost content.

The New York Times has a nice summary of this dynamic, calling cable channels like USA Network “zombie versions of their former selves.” USA is a particularly glaring example, as its decline in new scripted shows comes as one of its older original shows, Suits, lit up the streaming world this summer on Peacock and Netflix.

The rise of so-called “zombie networks” is the consequence of media companies spending the last few years building out libraries of splashy shows and movies for their streaming service. What once was a risky move for an actor or director had quickly become the norm and the ideal way to get a big check and creative freedom for a project. That trend only accelerated during the pandemic, when companies were willing to pay top dollar for content to serve audiences stuck in their home with little else to do. Consumers were treated with a flood of diverse and amazing content.

The industry, however, is now paying the price for those times. Disney+, Peacock, Paramount+ are among the streaming services that bet big over the last year, and now are curbing spending and raising subscription fees in an effort to stem massive losses (NBC affirmed this week that Peacock would lose $2.8 billion this year). And while there continues to be investment in new programming, it’s far more conservative than the free-wheeling days of just two or three years ago.

The other downside is that in the rush to get into streaming, the media companies shifted a lot of that scripted programming out of cable. Beyond NBCUniversal’s USA Network, Warner Bros. Discovery’s TNT and TBS, have drastically reduced the number of scripted shows in its lineup, according to the New York Times. They too have relied more on reruns like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. With these companies nursing big losses on the streaming side, there’s little appetite to invest more in its traditional channels.

“Producing content is expensive, and it becomes much more difficult when there aren’t as many eyeballs to see it or advertisers to pay for it. Traditional pay television is gradually losing the stronghold it once held,” said Eric Sorensen, director of streaming video tracking at Parks Associates.  

An NBCUniversal spokesperson noted that the shift in programming mix doesn’t necessarily equate to less financial investment. While USA features fewer original scripted shows, it has upped its sports content. The spokesperson noted that of the top 20 channels, USA Network is the only one to have seen ratings gains over the last year.

The shift to sports is a common thread, with TBS and TNT also investing big in the area, with live sports seen as the saving grace for cable.

But that’s no longer the case. From MLS to NASCAR and the NFL, more media rights deals are going to streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV. USA’s streaming sibling Peacock, meanwhile, is touting the large number of games it now has on its service, including next year’s Olympics. And the same games seen on TNT and TBS can be found on Max’s Bleacher Report sports package, which is available for free through February 2024.

This environment creates a continuous cycle that further accelerates cord cutting. The lack of original scripted programming on cable means there’s one less reason to stick around, and the decreasing number of households with cable means there’s less incentive to invest in original programming there.

The numbers already show this trend. The percentage of U.S. households with a pay TV account this year is expected to be 42%, a far cry from the 85% mark it surpassed in 2010, according to research firm GlobalData.

That could leave some of these cable channels vulnerable. Charter Communications’s deal with Walt Disney to drop underperforming channels like Disney Junior and Freeform as part of a distribution deal set a precedent that could see other cable channels get knocked off. One S&P analyst projected more than 30 cable channels could get shut down if those types of agreements continue to be made.

Stripping more channels of original programming leaves them vulnerable.

That’s not to say there still aren’t some hits on cable. Yellowstone, one of the biggest hits in the last few years, emerged out of Paramount Network. AMC is still pushing a connected set of shows around its The Walking Dead franchise, although it’s far from its peak during the early seasons of the original show. Bravo, meanwhile, has only grown in popularity thanks to programs like Below Deck and the Housewives franchise, and boasts a dedicated fanbase.

But those examples are more exception to the rules as most of the buzz moves to streaming, leaving many cable networks to continue to limp along.

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