Will Bart Be A Syndie Slam Dunk?

Depending on whom you ask, “The Simpsons” in syndication will represent:

* The next “Flintstones.”

* The right show at the wrong time.

* A $5 million per-episode slam dunk.

* A problem entry in the post-“Cosby” era.

In any case, Michael Lambert, the head of domestic syndication for Twentieth Television, must be caught between a rock and a hard place. He must determine the best moment to release “The Simpsons” reruns into syndication. Plenty of tv execs are wondering what he’ll do.

“It’s not a great time right now to be out there selling anything. On the other hand, syndicators want to sell a show when it’s hot, at its peak,” says Matt Shapiro, corporate v.p. of programming for the rep firm.

Adds John Serrao, g.m. of WATL-TV Atlanta: “It’s not an easy decision. If they launch now, they could be perceived as rushing it. If they wait, things could get worse economically or the show could wane in the ratings.”

Some are calling “The Simpsons” the “Flintstones” of the ’90s. If the Hanna-Barbera classic was the animated version of “The Honeymooners,” “The Simpsons,” some are saying, is a cartoon carbon of “Married . .. With Children.”

But the analogy to “The Flintstones” may not be enough to turn reruns of the show into a money machine.

“We’re in the post-‘Cosby’ era, wherein everyone knows that stations can’t pay over the odds and expect to still make a profit,” said one station g.m.

Insisting that “The Simpsons” is a stronger show than “Cosby,” Lambert predicted that it will outperform it financially in syndication.

That means it will have to rake in over $5 million per episode, the record-setting price Viacom got for the NBC sitcom when it was sold into syndication four years ago.

“Both local and national spots are selling for significantly more nowadays than they were four years ago. I’ll admit that the lower tier of shows out there are selling for very little or not being bought at all, but a few very special programs can attract enormous sums,” Lambert said.

Lambert says the timing of “The Simpsons” launch isn’t set, except that it’s likely to follow another Fox-produced sitcom, “Doogie Howser, M.D., ” whose marketing plan is now being readied by Twentieth TV execs. Sources suggest that the final marketing plan probably will have some national barter time in it, though Lambert would not be drawn on that issue.

Not surprisingly, Lambert says “The Simpsons” can, in syndication parlance, “make a station.” “Whatever station buys it in a given market will essentially ‘own’ the Simpson family in that market for promotional purposes. And what other show has ever managed in nine months to rack up sales of 40 million t-shirts?” he says.

No one doubts that the show is a mega-phenomenon for Fox. Its male demos are better than those of many off-network sitcoms, pulling for the last six weeks a 10.7 rating among males 25-54 against a 10.2 rating for women in the same demographic. It has taken a sizable bite out of NBC’s “Cosby,” with a season-to-date Nielsen average of 13.1/21, against “Cosby’s” 17.6/29 average. And judging from the merchandising craze that surrounds the series, children identify with Bart.

But a strong network primetime showing is no guarantee of success in syndication. Beyond “The Flintstones” and a few other animated shows, there are few precedents for an animated sitcom like “The Simpsons.” Not having precedents makes station people nervous.

“Yes, we’ve already started budgeting for ‘The Simpsons,'” said one g.m., who didn’t want to be identified. But, he added, “that doesn’t mean I don’t have questions about how animation might work in my lineup or how well the thing will hold up. They’re going to have to sell it to me.”

Programming rep Jack Fentress of Petry National points out that too much topicality and/or faddishness doesn’t transfer well to syndication. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” seemed dated when it got to syndication; “Mork And Mindy” fizzled like a faulty firecracker; and even “Alf” – which, like “The Simpsons,” appealed to both adults and kids while in its network run – generally has disappointed in syndication, except with kids.

“Topicality has never helped anything in syndication. Roughly 50% of ‘The Simpsons’ episodes are pivoted around topicality. The others are more concerned with the family relationships,” says Tom Bumbera, associate program director of Seltel rep firm.

Says Joe Barbera, of the duo that created “The Flintstones”: “The longevity of our series depends on the sincerity of the characters and the identifiability of the storylines. Adults related to the family dynamics of the show and the visual gimmicks. It wasn’t trying to be topical per se.”

Another problem for stations in judging “The Simpsons” is that too few episodes have been seen to let stations know what direction it’s taking as a series. Lambert dismisses this objection, saying that the consistency of the writing in the completed episodes speaks for itself. He says that by the end of the ’91-’92 season, there’ll be 62 episodes of the series in the can.

By that time, the glut of off-network product on the market is likely to have thinned. At the moment, several still are mopping up markets for ’91 and ’92: “Roseanne” (for ’91) and “The Wonder Years” (for ‘ 92) still have not been sold across the country. “Empty Nest” and “Designing Women” are poised to enter the market for ’92 but haven’t yet done so. “Major Dad,” “Coach” and Twentieth’s own “Doogie Howser” are being positioned for a ’93 entry but have had no official rollout.

Some stations expressed concern that much could happen between now and ’94, the probable trigger date for episodes to begin airing in syndication.

“I have questions as to where it would fit and how adult it really is,” says Karen Corbin, program director of WPHL-TV Philadelphia. One of the challenges for Fox, she says, will be trying to market or position the series later than the 5 to 5:30 p.m. “transitional” early fringe slots.

She and many others say the show probably will be aimed at independents, traditionally the reserve of shows with strong male appeal.

WATL’s Serrao doesn’t believe there will be “a lot of scrambling” for ‘The Simpsons’ beyond the top competitive markets, however.

Some indies don’t believe their potential interest in acquiring “The Simpsons” even will be taken into consideration. Al DeVaney, g.m. of Chicago indie WPWR-TV, says Fox will steer the show toward its own affiliates.

“The Fox stations will have essentially the first look and the last look at the product. It won’t be fair and impartial bidding. If they don’t take it, at least they’ll have the right to pass on it,” says DeVaney. Lambert calls such a view “nonsense.”

As for the viability of the show for affiliates, some rep programmers caution that another challenge for Fox will be to demonstrate that it is an ideal lead-in or lead-out for the news.

Says Mitchell Praver, v.p. of programming for Katz: “Those stations that paid dearly for ‘Cosby’ didn’t necessarily find it boosted their news shows. It’ll be Fox’ challenge to prove that ‘The Simpsons’ will have impact on and compatibility with news if they want to attract affiliates to the bargaining table.”

Another problem that could affect affiliate interest in “The Simpsons” has to do with whether the episodes will be exempt from the primetime access rule.

Because Fox is technically not yet a bonafide network, there is no Federal Communications Commission injunction against its shows being sold to affiliate stations for primetime access slots. “Married… With Children,” being syndicated by Columbia Pictures TV, is also a Fox network show but is being sold in some markets to affiliates for those prime access slots.

That prospect raises the revenue projections for a show because access slots on affiliates are the most lucrative in syndication.

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