Off-net sitcoms get fewer laughs

'Spin City' ready for syndie spotlight

Distribs of off-network programs are bracing themselves for a pivotal fall season.

Coming off a year during which ratings for the two highest-profile off-net sitcom debuts — Warner Bros.’ “The Drew Carey Show” and Carsey-Werner’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” — did not meet expectations, there’s added pressure on newcomers.

“If there’s an overall concern this season, it has to be about off-net sitcoms,” says station rep Bill Carroll, veep and director of programming for Katz Media. “If performances are disappointing again, it will affect what happens down the line.”

At the same time, the supply of future sitcoms may be threatened.

With the popularity of reality programs like “Survivor” airing in primetime, some worry that future sitcoms will have trouble finding timeslots. And as fewer sitcoms make it to network, the chance of a hit breaking out narrows.

And it’s hits, or at least consistent performers, that remain on network air long enough to reach the 100-or-so episode mark necessary for traditional off-net launches.

“It’s just as if it takes going to bat a million times to hit a grand slam, and you now only get to go up 75 times,” says Dan Greenblatt, exec VP of sales for Warner Bros. domestic TV distribution and telepictures distribution, which is launching sitcoms “Suddenly Susan” and “The Jamie Foxx Show” in off-net syndie this fall.

A handful of the shows set to debut in syndication this autumn face another challenge: Their network runs have finished.

Those shows include: “Suddenly Susan,” Twentieth TV drama “The Pretender,” Carsey-Werner sitcom “Cosby,” CBS drama “Early Edition” and Paramount’s “Clueless.”

Traditionally, syndie and network runs fuel one another’s success, drafting off the other’s promotion and exposure.

“In all honesty, it makes it a little more difficult,” says Paul Franklin, exec VP of sales for Twentieth Television, of launching “The Pretender” without a concurrent network run. “But it’s not the end of the world.”

One launch that does appear to have wind at its back is that of “Spin City,” which is entering its first season on NBC sans star Michael J. Fox. Syndication will be the only place audiences can see “Spin” with Fox.

Paramount Domestic TV is distribbing, along with five other off-net launches, “Moesha,” “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” “Clueless,” “7th Heaven” and “Nash Bridges.”

The batch is the biggest ever for the studio.

Fortunately for Par’s sales staff, the shows were not all sold at the same time, and “Moesha,” “7th Heaven” and “Nash” were mostly sold when they came to Par through corporate acquisitions last year.

Also debuting this fall is the off-cable run of MTV’s “The Real World,” which October Moon distribs.

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