Why syndicated TV shows are programmed out of sequence.

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Dec. 23 2009 9:38 AM

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Why are syndicated TV shows programmed out of sequence?

"The Office" Episode 502, "Weight Loss"
The Office

TBS is syndicating episodes of The Office every night this week at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday's episode, "Chair Model," was the 10th episode of Season 4. Later that night, a special marathon offered several out-of-sequence episodes from Season 2. Wednesday's episode, "Weight Loss," skips ahead to the Season 5 premiere. Such shuffling is typical of syndication schedules. But why do stations program shows out of sequence?

It's more economical. Certain episodes are more popular than others, so it's in a station's best interest to play them more often. These episodes can command higher ad rates and can serve as attractive lead-ins to other network shows. During the holidays, it's more important to air thematically appropriate episodes than adhere to strict series chronology. And certain guest stars, in the limelight for one reason or another, can make episodes newly relevant. Furthermore, stations don't always purchase an entire series. Rather than license the entire 11-year, 251-episode run of M*A*S*H, for example, a station may cherry-pick a few seasons (the early, McLean Stevenson years, perhaps) and create a subcycle out of the larger whole.

It's only in recent years that viewers expect to see nonserialized shows presented chronologically. Those who watch TV shows on DVD or Hulu can track a series by season and episode number, but such habits run counter to the original conception of these shows as stand-alone entertainments—precisely what makes them ideal syndication commodities. For syndicators and advertisers, there's a direct correlation between programming flexibility and market value. Traditionally, sitcoms like Friends do better in syndication than dramas, while self-contained programs, such as the Law & Order franchise, perform better than cliffhanger-style serials like Lost and most reality shows—which are difficult to understand without a good deal of back story.

Syndicators have the right to program leased episodes in whatever order they please, but sometimes they will follow chronology, especially if a show has never been syndicated before. Stations are traditionally interested in acquiring first-run syndication rights only once a series has amassed 100 episodes—roughly four standard seasons (although there are some notable exceptions to this rule). Crossing this threshold means it's possible to "strip syndicate," or air the show five days a week for 20 weeks without repeating. Thanks to exclusivity agreements, the relative bounty of episodes, and higher audience share, syndicators are more likely to maintain sequencing during an initial strip-syndication cycle. But once the exclusivity window closes and ratings settle, larger programming needs trump expectations for chronology. Individual episodes become more like movable units on a master schedule. Some viewers might still prefer to watch Roseanne in succession, but after many years and multiple cycles of syndication, such expectations are less intense.

Explainer thanks Andrew Goldman, vice president of programming and scheduling for HBO/Cinemax, and Howard Blumenthal, executive director of NJN and author of This Business of Television.

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Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.