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Fox O&Os lock up ‘3rd Rock’

“3rd Rock From the Sun” is journeying to the galaxy of “Home Improvement,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and other sitcoms poised to top the $100 million mark in off-network syndication license fees.

The 22 Fox O&Os sealed a deal with the Carsey-Werner Co. Monday for off-net rights to the quirky NBC comedy beginning in fall 1999. Fox and Carsey-Werner officials declined comment on financial terms, but sources familiar with the deal said Fox will shell out roughly $1 million to $1.5 million per episode for “3rd Rock” during its initial three-year license term.

Industry veterans described the deal as unprecedented in size and scope, if not total dollars. With one sale, Carsey-Werner cleared the show in nearly 40% of the country and 15 of the top 20 markets.

“It’s the biggest single (off-network) deal ever,” said Dick Kurlander, vice president, director of programming for Petry Television. “There’s never been a 22-station group deal done for a show that was as in demand and anticipated as this one.”

Indeed, industry sources said competition for the off-net rights to “3rd Rock” was fierce between Fox, Tribune Broadcasting and Chris-Craft/United Television. While the sitcom hasn’t been a blockbuster for NBC, it is nonetheless viewed as having the right ingredients for success in syndication — appeal to men, kids and teenagers plus a mix of slapstick humor and sophisticated wit.

Solid ratings

“3rd Rock,” which was developed for ABC before moving to NBC, debuted in January 1996 as a midseason entry. In the 1996-97 season, the show averaged a 10.8 national Nielsen household rating and 17 share; in the all-important demographic of adults 18-49, “3rd Rock” averaged a 7.9/20.

The comedy stars John Lithgow as the commander of an alien expedition to Earth who assumes the body of an physics professor at an Ohio university. Jane Curtin plays his human love interest, a fellow professor.

Carsey-Werner is offering 94 episodes of “3rd Rock” to stations for a weekly cash license fee plus 1.5 minutes of advertising time in each run. The initial three-year license term will be extended by one year for each season the show stays in production beyond the 1997-98 season. If “3rd Rock” makes it to an eighth season, the license term extension will be scaled back to six months.

Stations also have the option of purchasing a second run of the show for weekdays for 50% of the regular license fee. Carsey-Werner is also throwing in one cash- and barter-free weekend run.

Smart marketing

Another attractive element of Carsey-Werner’s marketing plan for “3rd Rock” is the distributor’s promise of broadcast exclusivity throughout the show’s first cycle in syndication. Recent hot off-net properties such as “Friends” and “Drew Carey” have been sold to stations with the caveat that the reruns will head to basic cable in the fourth year of their syndication life cycles.

Veteran syndie biz watchers say the Fox deal probably will account for about half of “3rd Rock’s” total license fee tally when the show is sold in the rest of the country. Add that to the national advertising time Carsey-Werner will retain and “3rd Rock” could pull in as much as $2.5 million to $3 million per episode — less than Buena Vista’s “Home Improvement” and Columbia TriStar’s “Seinfeld” but potentially more than Paramount’s “Frasier” or Columbia TriStar’s “Mad About You.”

In a separate deal, Fox’s KTTV-TV Los Angeles is said to have plugged the last major hole in the syndication lineup for Carsey-Werner’s ABC sitcom “Grace Under Fire,” which bows as an off-net strip in September. Fox and Carsey-Werner officials declined comment.

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