TV tension rising

Distribs push Chris-Craft to ease exclu rule

NEW YORK– A number of major sitcom distributors, including Warner Bros., Paramount, Columbia TriStar, Buena Vista and Eyemark, plan to push the Chris-Craft/United TV station group to reconsider its ironclad policy of not buying any rerun series that will run concurrently on a cable network.

Chris-Craft/United is the one group with owned stations in New York and Los Angeles, among other cities, that demands exclusivity for the life of a sitcom contract.

By contrast, TV distributors, under pressure from stockholders to get the most money for their sitcom reruns, try to build in windows for a cable-network sale –typically, in the fourth year of a six-year syndication cycle.

What has ignited optimism among distributors are the surprisingly strong Nielsen ratings racked up by WUTB, the new Chris-Craft/United TV station in Baltimore, for a whole slew of sitcoms that have run innumerable times over the years on cable and in syndication.

Twentieth TV’s “MASH” and five comedies from the library of Columbia TriStar — “Sanford & Son,” “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and “Diff’rent Strokes” — all premiered on Jan. 20, 1998, and for their first two weeks on the air delivered Nielsen household ratings of between a 1.5 and a 2.8 from 4:30 to 8 p.m. and from 10 p.m. to midnight.

For the next month, covering the February sweep period, each of the shows averaged higher ratings than they did in the first two weeks in each of the time periods, starting with the 7% increase for “Strokes” at 4:40 p.m. to a high of 55% gains for “MASH” at 7:40 p.m.

“We got a big kick out of it when the Sinclair station ended up making programming changes in March to counter what we’re doing,” says Jeff Weiss, general sales manager of WUTB. Sinclair’s WBFF Baltimore on March 16 moved “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” to 6 p.m., “Seinfeld” to 7 and “Frasier” to 7:30.

The TV distributors will be using the solid WUTB ratings for non-exclusive sitcoms to try to convince Chris-Craft/United’s station chief Evan Thompson to end his rigid policy and start bidding on the sitcoms likely to be coming into the marketplace over the next few months, such as Warner Bros.’ “Suddenly Susan,” Eyemark’s “Caroline in the City,” DreamWorks’ “Spin City” (with Buena Vista as likely distributor, although there’s no announcement as yet), Carsey-Werner’s “Cybill,” Columbia TriStar’s “NewsRadio” and Paramount’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”

Thompson was traveling on March 23 and unavailable for comment.

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