Networks plan low-cost reruns for mid-season


MARINA DEL REY, Calif. -- The regular TV season is in high gear, and critics from across the country are gathered here this week to see what mid-season programs the networks and cable channels are planning to roll out.

So, with expectations soaring, what programming shake-ups can viewers expect to see on TV this week? Drum roll, please.

First up, Thursday night on ABC, "Columbo" -- not new episodes but repeats of two-hour movies made over the past three years. Then on CBS Saturday night comes the first of a series of repeats of "All in the Family."

While vintage TV programs have surfaced in prime time in the past, they have generally appeared either during the summer or as nostalgic specials. The networks have not heretofore turned to reruns as a weekly staple during the regular season.

While most observers agree that the move reflects the severe impact of the nation's economy on broadcast television, some see it as boding ill for the networks' future.

"The old shows pull down decent ratings and cost the networks almost nothing to stick on the air because there's no production costs involved," said Vicki Kline, senior vice president of national broadcast for the media planning company DeWitt Media. "But in order for the networks to really stay in business, they need to produce and run original programming."

ABC and CBS say that the reruns are low-risk measures to plug holes in their program schedules, something CBS did successfully for the first time last summer with "All in the Family."

"I don't think they would be looking to go with old shows if everything were working for them in the best of all possible worlds -- or seasons," said "All in the Family" creator and producer Norman Lear.

"There's little surprise in anything here," Lear said. "This is happening in difficult financial times. It's impossible to take television out of the context of the rest of American business. We always wish to do that -- would that it were an art form. But it isn't. It's a business, and it reports to Wall Street the way every other American business does."

ABC hitched up ratings workhorse "Columbo," which the network had revived -- after a decade -- in 1988. "Columbo" has produced about three tele-films per season since, and those are the programs ABC will now repeat "for the foreseeable future."

"Every time we have run 'Columbo' on Thursday nights it has performed well, with repeats as well as originals," said Jim Brochu, ABC's manager of business information.

Meanwhile, CBS says it is using "All in the Family" to bide time. For the next four Saturdays, CBS will broadcast big-name theatrical movies, beginning with "The Untouchables" this week, and will use Archie, Edith, Meathead and Gloria to fill in following those movies. After that, it will have the Winter Olympics to rely on for two weeks.

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