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Why Don’t TV Networks Behave More Like Sports Teams?

That’s the question sent our way by a reader (who happens to work for the Federal Trade Commission). To be exact, here’s what he wrote:

Why don’t media companies act more like sports teams in trading assets? Why don’t we ever something like this: FOX trades Arrested Development to ABC for Alias and a pilot to be named in the future?

This strikes me as a really interesting question. Though my understanding of entertainment TV is very limited, I am guessing that the networks themselves rarely (if ever) own the programs: instead, they essentially license them from production companies. And I don’t know what those licensing contracts look like. It’s quite possible that if a show fails on one network, its contract with the production company forbids that company from trying to resell the program to another network within a certain time period.

However, even if that’s the case, the FTC guy’s question makes me realize that I can’t think of a single instance in which a show failed on one network and was then “rehabilitated” on another network, the way athletes are often rehabilitated by another team and put to good use. (I’m guessing it has happened before; anybody know of such cases?)

Given the sunk costs of a TV show that’s already been produced, you would think there would be some people willing to take a second chance on a program that, for whatever reason, didn’t work out on one of the networks. I would think this would be especially true in this era when shows are given the hook so quickly. Remember Heather Graham [ed.] in Emily’s Reasons Why Not? Probably not: it lasted a whopping one episode (after an avalanche of promotion, no less). I’ve been told many times (which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true) that if Seinfeld were launched today, it would have been an utter failure, since it took so long to develop an audience.

[Addendum: Obviously, I don’t watch enough TV. Here’s a Wikipedia link, sent along by a helpful reader promptly after the above post went live, listing TV shows that have switched networks. Granted, many of them don’t quite fulfill the scenario described above, but there are some noteworthy examples to be sure. Alas, keep in mind that it’s Wikipedia — which many of us love, and which many of us, myself included, have found deeply wanting in terms of reliability.]