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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:
The term can also apply to programming agreements or network affiliations where the ratings strength and programming quality of a network or syndicated program declines to a point where its existence can harm a station or cable channel's further existence. For instance, MyNetworkTV, which launched in 2006 with the intention of being a broadcast network with the same programming strength of its most direct competitor The CW, has declined to a programming service merely carrying syndicated crime dramas which themselves are already widely aired otherwise on other cable networks and streaming services. Because of this, many stations have pushed its programming to the graveyard slot due to its lack of viability. Thus, the service is being 'burned off' in a timeslot where it cannot cause further harm to the station's schedule.
In the early 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.
Milton Berle, 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.
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 Garry 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 (with those episodes largely filled by produced segments from previous recordings, that went unaired in the original airing). 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 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).
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.