Within the US television industry, 100 episodes is the traditional threshold for a television series to enter syndicated reruns.
One hundred episodes are advantageous for stripped syndication because it allows for 20 weeks of weekday reruns (depending on the number of episodes produced once the programme debuts in syndication) without repeating an episode, and such shows can be sold for higher per-episode pricing.
It is unclear when conventional wisdom came to decide that 100 episodes was the ideal. One of the first series made specifically for syndication, the 1953-55 sitcom Life with Elizabeth, purposely ended its run after only 65 episodes, concerned that producing more would saturate the market and reduce the syndication package’s value.
In recent years, the minimum number of episodes for off-network, stripped syndication has been set at 88 (typically four seasons of 22 episodes), although some programmes have been relatively successful in syndication with fewer episodes.
A show can be successfully distributed via subscription video on demand with only 50 episodes.
Syndication is often a profitable enterprise because a series can be rerun for years after they end production. Shows of limited profitability during their first run will still prove to be viable to the production company if they can last 100 episodes. This point is usually reached during a series’ fifth season.
Shows that have produced fewer episodes have become syndication successes, in some cases prompting additional episodes to be commissioned specifically for syndication to reach the 100-episode mark.
- WKRP in Cincinnati, an American sitcom series, was a major success in syndication despite having only produced 90 episodes, eventually prompting 47 additional episodes to be produced a decade after the original ended.
- The Monkees, a show that lasted only 58 episodes and two seasons, went on to be rerun extensively in the decades that followed, with interest in the series being revived in the 1980’s when the series was rerun on cable.
- The Honeymooners was a series spun off in 1955-56 from sketches of the same name that aired on The Jackie Gleason Show, an hour-long variety program (1952–55).
- While only 39 episodes of The Honeymooners were produced, there were enough Honeymooners sketches from The Jackie Gleason Show (which ran again in the 1956-57 season and would be revived in the 1960’s) to compile a syndication package with over 100 episodes.
- Mama’s Family was put into syndication despite having only 35 episodes at the time of its cancellation.
- The surprise success of the show in summer reruns and syndication prompted the syndicator to rush the show back into production, which led to an additional 95 episodes aired over four seasons in first-run syndication.
- The Munsters also was put into syndication despite running for two seasons, but with 70 episodes.
- The series became popular in reruns to the point that an updated version of the series was produced in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with an entirely new cast and 72 episodes over three seasons.
- More recently, Clueless had reasonable success in syndication, especially on cable, even though only 62 episodes had been produced by the time the series ended in 1999.
- Chappelle’s Show entered syndication despite only producing 33 episodes, five of which were clip shows.
Series which have entered the public domain, such as Dusty’s Trail, Meet Corliss Archer, and Life with Elizabeth are sometimes aired regardless of the number of episodes because there is no licencing fee.
Dramas, which do not require daily runs, have also had success in syndication with shorter runs.
- For example, Lost in Space ceased production in 1968 after 84 episodes because of declining ratings, but did well in syndication for a number of years.
- The original Star Trek series had only 79 episodes available when its network run ended in 1969, but after its considerable success in syndication, it spawned multiple feature films and more than six spin-off series.
- Other examples include The Prisoner and Hondo, both successfully syndicated for more than 30 years despite having only 17 episodes produced.
- The original 1978 series Battlestar Galactica and its spin-off Galactica 1980 produced a combined 34 episodes, yet it not only remains in syndication but it also led to a 2003 reimagining that lasted for 75 episodes.
- In 2014, AMC released The Walking Dead for reruns on MyNetworkTV after 51 episodes had aired; that series was still in production at the time, and MyNetworkTV airs its shows once a week instead of in a daily strip.
The growth of cable and satellite television has prompted channels to rerun series more often, with fewer episodes. Reruns of a particular show may air multiple times a day, several days a week, despite having only one or two seasons of episodes produced.
’88’ vs ‘100’
In recent years, the 100-episode milestone for syndication has been lowered to 88 episodes, which is typically reached after four seasons.
Shows approaching the 88-episode target are often renewed despite low ratings in order to ensure syndication.
Production companies can offer discounts on licencing fees to the networks to encourage renewal.
Shows that are approaching the 88-episode syndication milestone while suffering from poor ratings are often moved to graveyard slots on Friday or Saturday in order to burn off remaining episodes.
The Impact of Subscription Video on Demand Services
By the end of the 2010s, with the rise of subscription video on demand services, the threshold for a profitable series has been dropped even lower, to 50 episodes.
Netflix routinely cancels shows once they reach that number, with the exception of their in-house productions.
An extreme example of a show renewed primarily for syndication purposes was ‘Til Death.
- ’Til Death was pulled from Fox’s lineup just seven episodes into its third season, after it had fallen out of the top 100 in the primetime ratings.
- Cancellation seemed imminent, but ’Til Death was renewed for a fourth season after Sony Pictures Entertainment offered Fox a discount on the licencing fee.
- Unaired episodes from the third season were broadcast alongside fourth season episodes from October 2009 through June 2010 (a total of 37 episodes), including four new episodes airing in a Christmas Day “marathon” and two new episodes being scheduled against Super Bowl XLIV with the knowledge that these episodes would have minuscule ratings.
- The overlapped seasons led to some comical confusion, because four different actresses played the part of Allison Stark during this span of episodes.
- The show eventually reached 81 episodes, and debuted in off-network syndication in the fall of 2011.
Reaching the 100-episode milestone does not guarantee successful syndication, even for sitcoms.
December Bride was an early example: highly rated during its original broadcast run, it bombed in syndication. Michael Dann, who scheduled December Bride during its network run, soon realised that this was because the show had been picking up ratings from its lead-in, I Love Lucy, bringing rise to the industry concept of hammocking. Here’s Lucy was nowhere near as successful in syndication as its two predecessors, I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show (both of which remain in syndication decades later), in part because of Lucille Ball’s reluctance to compete with her previous shows and the resulting decision to wait seven years after the show ended to put it into syndication.
The CBS sitcom Becker ran for 129 episodes and had high first-run ratings for four of its six seasons, but much like December Bride these ratings were largely accredited to piggybacking off Becker’s lead-in, the popular Everybody Loves Raymond. Becker was only briefly released to broadcast stations in syndication before a move to HDNet, which took many broadcast programmes in the late 1990’s and early-to-mid 2000’s which did not reach 100 episodes early in its history mainly because they were among the first produced in high-definition television; Universal HD pursued the same programming strategy (Becker would return to a wider audience when Antenna TV picked up the series in 2017).
Yes, Dear (122 episodes) and Grace Under Fire (112 episodes) also never made any significant impact in local syndication, though Yes, Dear has become a fixture on the schedules of both Nick @ Nite and TBS, while Grace Under Fire was a minor success in building the viewership of Oxygen, which was co-owned by Grace producer Carsey-Werner-Mandabach in its early years.
Another successful first-run show to fare poorly in syndication is Night Court (193 episodes). The series Empty Nest (170 episodes) though having a seven year run in syndication from 1993 to 2000 on both superstations TBS and WGN, was not run in syndication on American television for over a decade, returning briefly to The Hallmark Channel in 2011 and then to Laff in 2015. Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper (101 episodes) has aired sporadically in syndication since it first started airing in off-network syndication in 1996.
There are also cases, such as Mad About You (164 episodes) and Murphy Brown (247 episodes plus an additional 13 produced in 2018), where a series was expected to do well in syndication but ended up with disappointing ratings and revenue. Reasons include dated references in early seasons, topical humour that does not age well, or plotlines in later seasons that fall flat, causing the series to end up being defined by that one plot line or season rather than as a whole, changing the audience’s perception. Murphy Brown itself (along with WKRP in Cincinnati) is additionally hobbled by music rights issues for a number of Motown Records recordings used in the course of the series, which complicates the airing of that series due to those copyright issues.
It also occasionally occurs that a marginally performing show that is approaching the syndication threshold will be cancelled because the show is not expected to perform well enough in syndication to make it worth the first-run production cost. Such was the case with 8 Simple Rules, a sitcom that lasted three seasons and 76 episodes. ABC thought that the show’s change of direction partway through the series (forced by the sudden death of the show’s star, John Ritter) would make the show less palatable for syndication. The network declined to renew the series for a fourth season, which would have produced the remaining 24 episodes to make syndication otherwise viable. 8 Simple Rules would eventually be internally syndicated by Disney-ABC Domestic Television to ABC Family as well as to The WB for their “Daytime” block.
Another example was the marginally-performing 1990s sitcom Anything But Love; in an unusual case, it was 20th Century Fox (the production company), and not the network (ABC), who pulled the plug on the show in 1992 after 56 episodes, having calculated that the show would not get renewed for a fifth season and would be unprofitable in first-run syndication.
The 100-episode threshold is generally applied solely to scripted prime time programming, since sitcoms and dramas are the most prevalent in syndicated reruns. However, other programming may follow different patterns.
On rare occasions, game shows have been rerun on broadcast television.
Despite having very high output as far as numbers of episodes are concerned (even a typical 13-week run of an unsuccessful game show yielded 65 episodes), most networks instead opted to recycle the tapes of those shows, as it was viewed at the time as a more profitable practice than trying to sell reruns of daytime programming.
The practice of rerunning some of the most popular game shows in syndication was rare, but not unheard of, in the 1970’s and 1980’s; Gambit was rerun in 1978 and Match Game was rerun in syndication in 1985. In addition, Classic Concentration was rerun by NBC between September 1991 and the summer of 1993. Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, which have produced thousands of episodes over their runs of 35 or more years in syndication as of 2019, offers a package of reruns (with the former using the title Daytime Jeopardy!) as companion series for stations with an extra time slot.
With the advent of cable channels such as Game Show Network and the subchannel network Buzzr, rerunning game shows has become more common; for instance, Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, which lasted one season and 225 episodes in syndication during the 2007-08 season, ran continuously for several years thereafter, originally in syndication and later on RTV. GSN has rerun several game shows that ran less than 100 episodes, including Greed (44 episodes), Dog Eat Dog (26 episodes), Power of 10 (18 episodes), and perhaps the most extreme case, Million Dollar Password, which ran for only 12 episodes. Even among shows with hundreds (and even thousands) of episodes, since the early 2010’s, GSN typically has only acquired the rights to 50 to 65 episodes at a time for most series.
Rerunning game shows has proven to be successful; Stirr, the free over-the-top service run by Sinclair Broadcast Group, stated that Buzzr was the service’s most popular nationwide channel.
Cartoons and Children’s Programming
Rerunning children’s programming generally requires fewer episodes than programming for adults. For most children’s series, reruns are aired for a short period of time after the series finishes production, then are replaced.
For weekly series, this practice dates to at least the 1960’s, when Saturday morning cartoons would, after the end of their 13-week run, begin rerunning continuously for about a year (usually four runs/year) until being replaced by the next show, either new or archival. During the 1970’s, 22 episodes was typically the number a producer sought in order for an animated programme to be rerun beyond its first year. After several years, once the previous generation of children outgrew the show, it could be reintroduced for the next younger generation by airing reruns. For shows that are rerun daily, the time span is usually on the order of months.
It was noted in a study that when the animated series Robotech aired in 1985, daily strip syndication for a series for children required 65 episodes at minimum.
Syndication thresholds for reality television vary widely depending on the subgenre of the programme.
Reality series that are self-contained and originally aired on network television, such as Rescue 911, Fear Factor, America’s Funniest Home Videos, Wipeout, and COPS, typically follow similar patterns to other network series in that once such a show reaches 100 episodes, it can (and often is) sold into syndication, albeit typically at a price somewhat lower than scripted programming, and can be aired daily.
Due to the large number of episodes which exist for each series, COPS and AFHV are unusual in maintaining several syndication packages rather than one for their entire run; COPS has packages for both older and newer episodes, along with a ‘best-of’ compilation known as COPS Reloaded, while AFHV packages their episodes by the host for each era, so that three separate packages for episodes hosted by Bob Saget, John Fugelsang and Daisy Fuentes, and Tom Bergeron are offered up divided by each host, with a fourth package for the current run hosted by Alfonso Ribeiro likely to follow in the coming years.
Annual and semi-annual contests have been a relative failure in syndication, since the traditional syndication model seldom works for most reality shows. Although these shows typically draw very high ratings in their first runs and produce a number of episodes on par with (if not exceeding) scripted programmes, the cast changeovers each season, the serial format that requires stations broadcast the episodes in sequential order, combined with the loss of the element of surprise and the lack of media buzz that drives many popular reality shows’ first-run ratings means that shows like Survivor and Dancing with the Stars garner little interest in reruns, especially when traditionally stripped as scripted series are.
Cable networks may play such programmes by the season in marathons, a strategy that has seen mixed success; both Survivor on OLN and Dancing with the Stars on GSN ended up not going further than their first run in syndication on those individual networks, while America’s Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race have a consistent afterlife in cable reruns airing in this manner, as those programmes are defined by their main host (Tyra Banks and RuPaul, respectively) rather than the format and contestants in whole.
However, CBS has managed to make a minor success of reruns of the full runs of Survivor and Big Brother as a lure to draw in viewers to their over-the-top streaming service CBS All Access, which follows an “on demand” model as opposed to the traditional linear television rerun model.
Another issue in syndicating a reality series is licencing; shows that rely heavily on music, a format popular in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, require that the music used in the show be licenced, which discourages the rerunning of the show (along with aged pop culture references and songs which had popularity at the time gaining comical or controversial infamy after the fact).
American Idol Rewind, which repackaged the first five seasons of the popular reality contest American Idol, ran for four seasons in syndication, with one of the five seasons being compressed into three half-hour episodes because of problems securing rights to the music for that season.