Six months from now, “Home Improvement” and “Seinfeld” will make syndie history.
For the first time, the No.1 and 2 network shows will premiere in syndication simultaneously – creating unparalleled scheduling challenges for stations, premium buy rates for advertisers and the need for an unprecedented marketing campaign by the two Hollywood giants distributing the comedy titans.
Disney fired the first shot in the marketing war last week, with “Home Improvement” distributor Buena Vista TV announcing a first: To kick off the series’ off-net run, Wind Dancer Prods, will produce an original episode of “Home” that will air in syndication before it appears on ABC.
What’s more, Disney will foot the entire bill for the episode, according to Randy Reiss, exec VP of Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications.
“It’s a unique little gimmick,” he says. “We pay for it and the network gets it for free.”
Disney hasn’t decided when ABC will air the episode. Reiss says it’s possible the network will carry it toward the end of the season, with the episode returning to syndication the following year.
Initially, Disney had eyed doing a week’s worth of original episodes for syndication, but with each episode of “Home” in the multimillion-dollar range, that idea was scrapped.
BVTV president Mort Marcus boasts the special episode will grab “ratings unlike anything ever seen in a syndicated launch.”
Some competitors, however, question the strategy, saying they are skeptical the huge audience for the special “Home” episode will come back the following night to watch the reruns.
Sources say Columbia TriStar Television Distribution, which is syndicating “Seinfeld,” already thought of the idea for its show and passed.
Reiss and Marcus dispute that contention, calling it highly unlikely that two studios would simultaneously come up with an idea that has never been tried before in syndication.
CTTD, meanwhile, is employing a practice it has used with other high-profile sitcom launches. The syndicator will hold its first station advisory meeting this week to lay out marketing and promotional plans for “Seinfeld.”
Stations have a lot riding on the performance of “Home” – which fetched about $3 million per episode in license fees – and “Seinfeld,” which is expected to come in at between $2.5 million and $3 million. Both could reap another $1 million in barter advertising.
Scheduling the series won’t be easy, particularly in the nation’s top two markets, where they will face off on the Tribune (“Seinfeld”) and Fox (“Home”) stations.
With “Home” appealing more to kids and teens than “Seinfeld,” stations will have greater flexibility in scheduling Mr. Tooltime.
Given the amount of cash that stations have ponied up for the two shows, however, there is a strong likelihood that both will have to air in the access hour before primetime, when viewing is at its highest levels and stations have the best chance of recouping their investments.
Disney’s Reiss says the Fox stations in New York, Los Angles and Chicago (the latter, WFLD, the only station in the big three markets to have both “Home” and “Seinfeld”) bought “Home” with the intention of airing it at 7:30 p.m.
But other industry execs say they think “Home” would play better at 6:30 or 7 p.m.
There have also been rumors that Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch has handed down an edict that he wants “The Simpsons” at 7:30 p.m. leading into primetime on Fox affiliates.
That hit off-Fox show is the highest new program of the 1994-95 syndie season, and could be even more formidable in its second year, when its national coverage increases.
So far, however, the only powerful off-net sitcom to climb from year one to two was CTTD’s “Married… with Children.” Other shows have either remained flat or declined.
For Tribune’s KTLA Los Angeles and WPIX New York, a “Home” start at 7:30 could pose serious problems. With its adult skew, “Seinfeld” would undoubtedly be considered a strong primetime lead-in at 7:30.
Recipe for disaster
The industry consensus is that stations would be foolish to air the two shows against each other after paying so much. They would only succeed in diluting their potential audiences.
Some ad buyers estimate the shows will generate at least $75,000 for a 30-second national barter spot, but one advertising trade magazine has pegged their value at more than $100,000, an industry record.
Still, there is a fair share of skepticism in the advertising community.
“In my gut, I think they’ll do pretty well,” said Connie Betro, buying supervisor at ad agency DMB & B. “But when ‘Murphy Brown’ and ‘Cheers’ came in, they did fair (but) not exorbitant business. I don’t believe we’ll see one of them do exorbitantly. We’ve heard that one before.”
Either way, the shows are too valuable to undermine with a bad scheduling move.
High tide for ‘Seinfeld’
“Seinfeld” will enter syndication at a time when its ratings are on the rise, with the lynchpin of NBC’s Thursday night schedule climbing from a 29 share last season to a 31 share this year.
“Home,” like most sitcoms with broader kid and teen appeal, is still a powerhouse but has declined a bit from last season, falling from a 33 to a 29 share.
“Of the two, consensus says that the slam dunk is ‘Home Improvement,'” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at Katz TV, a station rep firm in New York. “But ‘Seinfeld’ is having one of the best years ever, for any show in primetime. It has a significant cult following, and it’s coming out at a time when the cult following is greater than even ‘MASH’ or ‘Cheers’ had.”