Love affair with ‘Raymond’ moves off-network

Laffer shows promise in off-network biz

Players in off-network sitcoms are hoping that everybody — especially American TV viewers — really does love Raymond. CBS laffer “Everybody Loves Raymond” leads a list of half-dozen network shows bearing promise this fall of perking up the off-network comedy biz — which sorely is in need of a chuckle.

Studios and stations are coming off two rough seasons: Rating perfs for “The Drew Carey Show” and “3rd Rock From the Sun” didn’t meet expectations when they bowed in syndication in fall 1999, and neither did “Spin City” last year. However, insiders say this season likely will be different.

“There’s a lot of optimism about ‘Raymond’ in particular, like it could do as well as ‘Frasier,'” Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media Corp., says of the King World-distribbed show.

TV stations that have bought off-NBC comedy “Just Shoot Me,” Fox’s “King of the Hill” and off-WB laffer “The Steve Harvey Show” for fall also are optimistic, Losak adds.

Stations also are incorporating into their lineups niche properties such as Telepictures-distribbed sketch show “MadTV”; teen NBC show “City Guys,” distribbed by Tribune Entertainment; and Columbia-distribbed “Malcolm & Eddie.”

The entries all are widely cleared on local stations across the country. Many stations depend on road-tested laffer reruns to attract ad-friendly 18-34 and 18-49 demos, particularly during highly viewed access timeslots (5 to 8 p.m.).

One station exec cautions that if the new off-net laffers don’t show some life, the pain will be felt well beyond the current season.

‘Ray’ of hope

“‘Raymond’ is clearly the show that could turn around the cycle. If it doesn’t, stations will have to decide once they get past shows bought for the next few upcoming seasons whether or not they’ll pay a premium for any off-network sitcom,” the exec says. “If ‘Raymond’ fails it will be much more difficult to expect much from next year’s shows, and all eyes will be on ‘King of Queens,’ the next major comedy up for sale.”

“Sitcoms have been a very good business for us,” says Columbia TriStar TV Distribution prexy Steve Mosko, striking a more positive note. “Ratings for sitcoms across the country are as strong as ever.”

Mosko says he expects big things this season from “Just Shoot Me” and “Steve Harvey,” both of which CTTD distributes. The history of success among off-NBC comedies in syndication, such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” (which CTTD distributes) and “Frasier,” has him anticipating a strong showing for “Just Shoot Me.”

While some in the industry fret that the networks’ trend toward producing fewer comedies in order to make way for reality shows means fewer chances of a hit emerging, Mosko says the cutback could be a boon to the laffers that do get made.

“Fewer shows going into syndication means there’s going to be a real value seen in the shows currently in syndication and those that are upcoming.”

For now, however, the stable of comers remains relatively full. Three high-profile laffers — “Will & Grace,” “That ’70s Show” and “Dharma & Greg” — are set to debut in syndie in ’02.

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