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The real reason networks keep resurrecting old TV hits

Your favorite TV show will never die because streaming rules the world.

Prison Break
The return of Prison Break on Fox was driven partially by Netflix.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In 2014, Fox resurrected 24 as a 12-episode event. Earlier this year, it revived The X-Files with a six-episode miniseries. And in early 2017, it will bring back Prison Break.

The obvious reason these reboots exist is that they draw good ratings. Even after over a decade off the air, X-Files was a massive smash, second only to Empire as Fox’s top scripted hit, and while 24 didn’t reach the same heights in its return, it was a solid performer. Thanks to name recognition and fan nostalgia, half the work was already done to get viewers in the door.

Prison Break, which was never as successful as the other two series, seems like more of a stretch to bring back, but if it can draw in only half as many viewers as it did during its first run, it will still be a major player in a greatly diminished TV environment.

However, there’s more at stake with these reboots than just easy ratings wins and short-term gratification.

Indeed, their longer-term prospects have a lot of bearing on why it’s increasingly hard to get a TV show made that’s not somehow based on or connected to some other established property.

Why are there so many reboots? Look to streaming services.

The X-Files
The X-Files returned with massive ratings in early 2016.

At Fox’s executive session at the 2016 Television Critics Association summer press tour, Dana Walden, the network’s co-president, said that one of the reasons the network decided to bring back Prison Break was that Netflix indicated it was seeing strong streaming numbers for the show, which originally ran from 2005 to 2009.

It was an unusually candid admission, because it indirectly revealed why TV (or Fox, at least) is so interested in making reboots and sequels right now.

Yes, network heads will often talk about how a show’s initial broadcast is now essentially an advertisement for its long-term prospects on various streaming platforms.

If you hear a lot of good things about, say, Fox’s upcoming baseball drama Pitch, you might file it away on your list of series to check out on Netflix or Hulu someday. And so long as there’s a constant stream of people like you, then Pitch becomes a good long-term asset, because streaming services will have to keep paying to renew the rights to air it.

But this detail doesn’t just apply to new shows. In fact, it’s particularly true of older shows in studios’ asset libraries, which have enjoyed an uptick in value as the studios open up their archives and sell off the streaming rights. If you’ve never seen The X-Files, but you’ve heard about it, then watching all of it on Netflix is a pretty good way to get caught up. It might not be new, but it’s new to you.

The more this attitude takes hold, and the more that studios realize how valuable their library of titles has become, the more the television industry changes. As I wrote here, one result is that networks are largely programming shows made by their partner studios, to make it easier and more lucrative to bring in streaming revenue. Another result is that more and more shows with marginal ratings are being renewed, in hopes they’ll make their money back further down the line.

Which brings me back to why TV (or Fox, at least) is so interested in reboots and sequels. The simple fact is that, for somebody watching The X-Files on Netflix a decade from now, the leap from season nine to season 10 won’t be that noticeable. They might wonder why David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson look older, and they might take note of how time seems to have passed.

But once everything is lumped together, it all becomes the same show. And Fox commands more money from streaming services as it adds more episodes to the overall package. (For more on this, read Forbes’ Merrill Barr.)

Obviously, if the Prison Break reboot is a huge ratings flop, Fox will be less likely to keep making more of the show. And considering how the original Prison Break ran out of story about halfway through its first season (and this is me being charitable), I wouldn’t be surprised if the TV viewing audience regards this new series with a shrug. That’s what happened to NBC’s ill-fated Heroes reboot (though it drew good ratings for its premiere).

But even so, in the middle of a binge-watch, it’s a lot easier to just keep watching something even once it’s completely lost its mind. When you have to wait a week for a new episode of Prison Break, you might not tune in. When you have to wait a couple of seconds, you’ll probably keep going. That could mean a fifth season of Prison Break is a good idea in the long-term. And that could lead to a sixth and a seventh and an eighth, even if it flops in the short-term.

In short, so long as a show is valuable to Netflix, it might never die. And in a medium where shows eventually run out of things to say, that’s far from a good thing.