Sale expected to set standard

The “Seinfeld” auction has begun — again.

After reaping record coin from broadcasters, “Seinfeld” distrib Columbia TriStar TV Distribution this week formally began soliciting offers for the cable rerun rights to the hit Castle Rock TV sitcom for a four-year license term beginning in 2002. There’s little doubt among TV biz watchers that the sale will set a new gold standard in terms of prices paid by cablers for an off-net sitcom.

USA Network, FX and the Turner Broadcasting cablers are girding for a bidding war, and sources say Comedy Central and A&E Network are also in the mix for rights to the long-running NBC hit. The timetable for submitting bids was unclear late Wednesday, but sources indicate a deal could be sealed as early as next week.

With fervent interest from multiple bidders in a marquee property, observers say Col TriStar could command $500,000-$600,000 per episode in license fees alone from the winning bidder, or around $100 million over the four-year term, for roughly 170 segs.

The current record-holder for a cable sitcom is Touchstone TV’s “Ellen,” which sold to Lifetime in 1996 for $600,000 per seg. But “Ellen” went exclusively to cable for its off-network bow. “Seinfeld,” on the other hand, has been generating big dollars and big Nielsens in broadcast syndication since 1995.

Earlier this year, Col TriStar launched a sales blitz to renew the broadcast syndie rights with stations beyond 2002, when the initial broadcast syndie license term expires and the cable component of “Seinfeld’s” off-net cycle begins.

Col TriStar is offering essentially the same deal to cablers that it already has with 200-plus broadcast stations around the country: a weekly cash license fee and one minute of barter advertising time per telecast. Cablers traditionally have resisted giving up barter ad time in off-net acquisitions, which has become standard practice in broadcast syndie deals.

As it has on the broadcast side, Col TriStar will also hold the line at one run per day of “Seinfeld” in an effort to keep the show from becoming overexposed.

Industry observers say well-heeled cablers will be ready to spend for “Seinfeld” because the hit “show about nothing” would likely prove to be an engine of growth on many fronts. Landing a proven hit would give operators more incentive to add a growing cabler like an FX or a Comedy Central. For an established outlet like a USA or TBS, “Seinfeld” would be a vehicle for showcasing original programming or promoting an entire primetime slate.

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