In the U.S. television industry, 100 episodes is the traditional threshold for a television series to become viable for syndication. 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 program debuts in syndication) without repeating an episode, and such shows can be sold for higher per episode pricing.
- Niche genres
- Game shows
- Cartoons and children's programming
- Reality television
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 programs have been relatively successful in syndication with fewer episodes.
Syndication is often a profitable enterprise because 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 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. 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 1960s) to compile a syndication package with over 100 episodes. Mama's Family was put into syndication despite having only 36 episodes at the time of its cancellation; the surprise success of the show in syndication prompted the syndicator to rush the show back into production, which led to four more seasons in first-run syndication.
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 licensing 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 five 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.
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 licensing fees to 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.
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 licensing 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 three 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 realized that this was because the show had been picking up ratings from its lead-in, I Love Lucy. Becker, for instance, ran for 129 episodes and had high first-run ratings for four of its six seasons, yet was only briefly released to broadcast stations in syndication before a move to HDNet, which took many broadcast programs in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s 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. 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 Newsradio (97 episodes), 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, 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.
It also occasionally occurs that a marginally performing show that is approaching the syndication threshold will be canceled 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 and The CW for their "Daytime" block. Another example was the marginally-performing 1990s sitcom Anything But Love; in an unusual case, it was the 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. 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 (a typical 13-week run of even 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 1970s and 1980s; Gambit was rerun in 1978 and Match Game was rerun in syndication in 1985.
With the advent of cable channels, 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, has been continuously rerun from that point onward, either in syndication or on current channel 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 2010s, GSN typically has only acquired the rights to 50 to 65 episodes at a time for most series.
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 1960s, when Saturday morning cartoons would, after the end of their 13-week run, begin rerunning continuously for about a year until being replaced by the next show, either new or archival. During the 1970s, 22 episodes was typically the number a producer sought in order for an animated program 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.
"In 1985, when Robotech was first broadcast, there was a minimum 65-episode requirement for daily strip syndication."
Syndication thresholds for reality television vary widely depending on the subgenre of the program.
Reality series that are self-contained and originally aired on network television, such as 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.
Annual and semi-annual contests have been a relative failure in syndication; 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 programs, 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 programs 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 has had a consistent afterlife in cable reruns airing in this manner.
Another issue in syndicating a reality series is licensing; shows that rely heavily on music, a format popular in the late 2000s and early 2010s, require that the music used in the show be licensed, which discourages the rerunning of the show. 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.