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How a dead TV show like 'The Office' can live on

Scene from "The Dundies," "The Office" Episode 201. Steve Carell as Michael Scott.

For any of you Dunder Mifflin fans out there, tomorrow night is the last chance to see Dwight, Angela, Jim and all your other favorite characters -- on primetime NBC.

"The Office" is already syndicated on TBS and Fox -- you can even buy episodes from the iTunes store. So what does a beloved sitcom stand to gain these days once it’s put out to pasture?

Thanks to the Internet, we can watch TV anytime and almost anywhere. Which must mean bazillions of dollars for content providers, right? When Michael Scott, the regional manager for Dunder Mifflin, realized what was available online, he shut out all other life forms.

“When I discovered YouTube, I didn’t work for five days," the character said in one episode. "I did nothing. I viewed Cookie Monster sings Chocolate Rain, about a thousand times.”

But to truly appreciate "The Office," you have to know its storyline -- and very original characters. Like Dwight, and his beet farm, or Angela, and her obsession with cats.

Paige Albiniak, an editor with Cable and Broadcasting Magazine, says it’s these inside jokes that make it hard for casual viewers to tune in to just one episode.

“Let’s switch over to the 'Big Bang Theory,' which does incredibly well in syndication. That show is not nearly as available online,” she says.

Albiniak notes you can't stream the "Big Bang Theory" on Netflix. She says that’s because when the cable networks and local TV stations pay, likely upwards of $2 million an episode, they expect a lot of bang for their buck.

“The more they pay for it, the more exclusivity they get," Albiniak says.

But Jethro Nededog says for shows with lower ratings, like NBC’s "The Office" or "30 Rock," there can still be life, and profit, after the TV screen goes dark. He's senior TV writer with Hollywood website, TheWrap.com.

“The difference in the online age, is that a show that under performs on broadcast can actually find a pretty huge audience online,” he says.

Nededog notes that even if a show’s audience is smaller, when it’s online, advertisers know viewers watch episodes over and over and over again.


Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said "The Big Bang Theory" couldn't be streamed on Amazon.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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