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In broadcast programming, burning off is the airing of otherwise-abandoned television programs, usually by scheduling in far less important time slots, moving shows to lower-rated sister networks, or taking long hiatuses.
Abandoned programs may be burned off for a number of reasons:
- They have to air to meet contractual or legal requirements.
- The production company needs enough first-run episodes to meet minimum requirements for syndication.
- Their use as "filler" is perceived as slightly more profitable than reruns or other fillers.
- Series fans' desire to see the conclusion to unresolved story arcs.
Up through the 1990s, contractual obligations often meant the airing of pilots for shows that were not going to be picked up, such as The Art of Being Nick, Poochinski, Heart and Soul, and Barney Miller, usually during the summer months to provide some form of new programming in the technical sense of the word. In a few cases, the pilot may prove popular enough that a series is eventually commissioned; such was the case with Barney Miller and The Seinfeld Chronicles, the latter of which led to the long-running sitcom Seinfeld. Anthology series such as Love, American Style were devoted to many such failed pilots, most famously Gary Marshall's failed pilot, "New Family in Town", which was rebranded "Love and the Happy Day" when aired as an episode of Love American Style; ABC ultimately changed its mind after all and picked up the series as Happy Days.
Since the late 1990s, episodes of long-running shows that are no longer hits and have been taken off the schedule have been burned off. The Drew Carey Show is an example of a series whose entire final season was burned off (the series' ninth season aired on ABC in the summer of 2004). Carey's other series Whose Line Is It, Anyway? had its run on ABC canceled in 2003, but unaired episodes were burned off on the ABC Family channel through 2006. In many cases, instead of airing the episodes during the regular television season, the episodes are held back and presented during the summer months to fulfill the network's obligation to air them and to produce at least some return on their investment. Another example occurred in 1997 when the remaining EZ Streets episodes aired on CBS, after its October 1996 cancellation. Yet another example of these is burned-off episodes from the second season of Max Headroom. Recent examples of summer burn-offs include Fox's Sons of Tucson (2010) and the NBC medical/fantasy drama Do No Harm (2013).
Some programs may not air even in this form; in 2010, the final unaired episodes of the seldom-promoted ABC workplace comedy Better Off Ted were to be used solely as a filler just in case the 2010 NBA Finals ended after five games. However, the Finals were a full seven-game series, and the remaining episodes of Better Off Ted would not premiere until the release of the series' second season DVD box set and eventual streaming on Netflix.
In one of the earliest examples of a burning-off, Milton Berle, then in the middle of a 30-year contract with NBC, was installed as host of the show Jackpot Bowling when Berle, who was one of television's first major stars but was rapidly fading in the face of new competition, could no longer draw enough viewers to headline a variety show of his own. The original Jackpot Bowling show ran only 15 minutes, but with Berle, NBC lengthened the show to 30 minutes with Berle interviewing a celebrity guest between the bowling segments and having said guest roll a shot for charity. The experiment failed after six months, and NBC finally terminated his contract in 1961.
During the 2009–10 season, Fox aired 37 first-run episodes of the sitcom 'Til Death: 22 season four episodes and 15 unaired episodes from season three. The series had been renewed for a fourth season only after Sony Pictures Television offered Fox a discount on the licensing fee in order to get enough episodes aired to compile a saleable syndication package. Several episodes of the series were burned off in unusual time slots, including: four episodes in a Christmas Day "marathon", two episodes being aired against Super Bowl XLIV, and three unaired third season episodes being broadcast in June after the fourth season (and series) finale had already aired in May. The series' continuity also shifted throughout the season, as episodes were often aired out of order, leading to a situation where Allison Stark (the daughter of the main characters) was re-cast four times throughout its history and would have a different actress playing the character from episode to episode, eventually becoming a fourth wall-breaking running gag.
Other examples include in television syndication, having a station pick up one program solely to air another, as was the case in 2009 when a syndicator offered stripped repeats of MTV's Laguna Beach which were of little interest to viewers or the stations themselves, but eventually led into the more popular MTV series The Hills, which was part of the same package. In the reverse, some shows have had their spin-offs bundled together due to the strong continuity between the original series and the spin-off. This practice began in the 1950s, when The Adventures of Kingfish was combined with its parent The Amos 'n' Andy Show for syndication. In later years Three's Company was bundled with its sequel Three's a Crowd, and The Golden Girls was augmented with episodes of The Golden Palace.
Often, the program is moved to a sister cable network into low-profile time slots to mute collateral damage to the main broadcast's schedule as much as possible. Such was the case with NBC's broadcast airing of the MySpace series Quarterlife, the ABC pageant reality series All American Girl and ABC's Greg Behrendt's Wake Up Call. In these cases, Quarterlife aired in the form of a one-day marathon on Bravo, while All American Girl was placed on ABC Family. In the case of Wake Up Call, the show never aired on ABC due to several factors, including the failure of Berhendt's self-titled talk show during the same season, and a glut of reality series during the 2006–07 summer season. The program was held up until January 2009, when it had a short run on ABC's SoapNet. In 2011, Fox similarly dumped the canceled sitcom Running Wilde on sister channel FX after a short burn-off run on the network's late night Saturday lineup; FX consigned the show to four different time slots during the burn off.
Nickelodeon often uses its sister networks TeenNick and Nicktoons to burn off series that failed on Nickelodeon, or to air acquired programming from its international sister networks which contractually require a minimum American run (the fourth season of Oggy and the Cockroaches, a show popular in its home European market but mediocre in American airings on Fox Family and Nickelodeon, is an example of this; it was removed from Nickelodeon and burned off in low-viewed Nicktoons timeslots as fast as possible due to light parental controversy involving unnoticed background comical nudity in an episode). Oggy and the Cockroaches would later be picked up by KidsClick, which aired the show in more prominent early-morning time slots until it ceased operations in March 2019.
Similarly, Cartoon Network sometimes moves programming to Boomerang, airing new episodes of acquired programming not fitting Cartoon Network's current programming direction (such as Grojband and The Garfield Show), and also airing episodes of some of Cartoon Network's original and acquired shows, unadvertised, before they aired on Cartoon Network (such as Johnny Test and Ben 10: Omniverse). However, Cartoon Network usually burns off episodes of their original programming on their own network in order to provide closure to viewers. As the networks of Disney Channel are separated by age and format (Disney XD has an action focus, while Disney Junior is meant for young children), that network rarely directs little-watched programming to another network and instead merely downgrades series to lower-profile timeslots.
Another case involving cable television had the final five episodes of Syfy's Caprica being burned off on January 4, 2011 after the network determined that it would neither renew the series nor be able to support a traditional finale due to scheduling factors.
In earlier days of television, when individual actors held contracts with networks, it was occasionally necessary to burn off a contract signed at the actor's peak but whose star power has rapidly declined. Paul Lynde and Milton Berle were subject to this sort of burn-off; Lynde, after two efforts to give him a starring sitcom role failed, was given a series of variety show specials, while Berle was relegated to hosting bowling shows.
- Ashcan copy – comic books created to secure trademarks to titles rather than for popular distribution
- Filler (media) – material of lower cost or quality that is used to fill a certain television time slot or physical medium, such as a musical album
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