For our discussion of time, Senior Arts Editor Samantha Della Fera and Daily TV Editor Ally Owens discuss the beast that is syndication, the cryogenic tank of television. Through looking at the process behind syndication itself, they are better able to theorize what privileges certain shows to last the test of time, while others are forgotten forever.
We’ve all seen the memes. Insert clip of someone jumping in slow-motion; insert trite caption related to being startled awake by the unmistakable horns of War’s “Low Rider” signaling the commencement of the 4:30 a.m. “George Lopez.” If you understand the joke within this meme, then there’s a good chance you’ve had some sort of contact with syndicated television. SYNDICATION: It’s the reason why Matthew Perry has been able to stave off a middle-class existence despite not appearing in anything of note for over a decade, why Jerry Seinfeld is nearly a billionaire and why, to this day, I hold nothing but an irrational resentment towards the actor who played Carl Winslow on “Family Matters.”
Using industry terms, when a television show is syndicated, it has been specifically selected and purchased by a television network separate from the channel that originally aired the program. The show then runs on this new network at random times of the day, normally in the gaps between daytime and primetime or during the graveyard shift before the infomercials begin. Using layman’s terms, the entire process is a bit like the afterlife depicted in “Coco”: Those that are popular enough to be remembered get access to the afterlife syndication provides, and those that are not … well … have you ever heard of “Small Wonder”? By the book, it seems like a pretty simple process, but when I took a step back and compared the endless amount of television shows produced over the years with the oligarchy of shows that dominate various networks’ syndication rotations, I had to wonder what made these shows so special. Was there someone out there really pushing for “The Big Bang Theory” to run simultaneously on six different networks at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night? What prioritizes shows like this over “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23?” Just why was I forced to spend my childhood pretending Dave Coulier was funny on “Full House,” when Alanis Morissette worked so hard to inform the country that he was a mondo douche?
The first clue that I received on my hunt for answers was a concept called the “100-episode” rule. The 100-episode rule decrees that television shows must have over 100 episodes in their original series run to have a better shot at being purchased for syndication. Think about it: A show like “American Dad!” with over 256 episodes spanning 15 seasons is better suited for the basic cable mid-afternoon programming lull than something like “Freaks and Geeks” with only 18 episodes to its name. If TBS chose the latter over the former for syndication, almost weekly, the same episodes would air in sequential order. Take this from someone who has spent many summers parked in front of the TV during this block — repetition of the same episodes is enough to drive someone to madness. Or worse, reading a book!
In realizing this, it becomes very clear that the key to syndication lies in how the show was received — not by fans — by network executives during its original run. Big, bloated shows like “Friends” are selected for syndication because they easily have more than 100 episodes to its history, but then this presents the question of what factors were at play to ensure that it continued to get renewed during the 1990s? It is easy to draw the line between length and syndication when comparing “Friends” to “Pushing Daisies,” but not as clear when you compare to two titans such as “Friends” to “NYPD Blue.” Why is one seen so much for frequently than the other?
— Ally Owens, Daily TV Editor
Syndication is not always a bad thing; I discovered some of my favorite shows (“Scrubs” binge anyone?) through their repeated airings far after the last episode premiered live. But syndication has become much like an annoying public policy class — some people take up way too much airtime, with little or nothing to say. We’ve all seen the “pivot” episode of “Friends” far too many times to find it funny anymore, and I can recite entire episodes of “Law and Order: SVU” from 2003 better than I can recite the “Star-Spangled Banner.” These shows have survived the test of time, infiltrating laptop stickers and Instagram bios with jokes and quotes that should’ve died in 2004. They’ve been dug up time and time again, but what about the shows who weren't given enough time? The ones who were laid to rest forever? The ones not deemed good enough in their first runs, catapulting them into obscurity for the rest of eternity?
With the exception of “Scrubs” and maybe “The Nanny,” some of the best shows are those that are left alone. This isn’t a snobbish declaration that I know what’s better for TV more than the “common man,” it’s actually quite the opposite. Most of the shows cancelled or ignored before they get their chance to make it big are fan and critic favorites — it’s the corporations that don’t like them. Take “Arrested Development” for example. Seasons one through three of the show were wildly popular among critics, yet it was cancelled due to low viewership (partly due to low publicity, as the show was slapped with a lawsuit in its first season). Yet, today “Arrested Development” has a cult following.
This example of cancellation despite high critical acclaim is not exclusive to “Arrested Development.” Just look at two more recent examples: “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “One Day at a Time.” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was cancelled after five popular seasons to make room for “Bob’s Burgers” and “Thursday Night Football,” two programs that FOX wanted to prioritize. Yet, the cancellation caused universal outrage and, in an unprecedented move, NBC snatched up the show barely a day later. “One Day at a Time” hasn’t been so lucky.
At risk of sounding like a tin-hatter, it’s interesting that shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “One Day at a Time,” two shows praised for their diversity, were not given the time and effort to properly succeed. Much like “Arrested Development,” “One Day at a Time” received high critical praise and a cult following, yet that still wasn’t enough to save it. The effects of cable syndication has seeped into streaming services, as just months before Netflix cancelled “One Day at a Time,” they spent thousands to keep “Friends” on the platform. Apparently people need to watch Ross and Rachel fight for one more time and a group of white twenty-somethings drinking coffee more than they care to watch a diverse family go through real issues with grace and humor. But, that’s none of my business.
Does syndication prevent new shows from succeeding? No — well, not exactly. What it does is force outdated casts and humor on to audiences. People love “The Office” and “Friends,” and that’s fine, but watching these shows over and over cause them to crave material just like them, and networks want to feed that craving. Critics and audiences are telling TV companies what they want — they just aren’t listening. As hit shows like “Broad City,” “Jane the Virgin, “Veep” and “Game of Thrones” end this year, what is lining up to take their place? Society has been through enough, another repeat of “Friends” just won’t cut it anymore.
— Samantha Della Fera, Senior Arts Editor