‘Raymond’ bow offers hope to off-net comedy

Skein suffered from promo setbacks

Ratings for the Monday night syndication debut of “Everybody Loves Raymond” offered an early glimmer of hope for what some term the ailing off-net comedy biz.

Off-net run of “Raymond” earned a 3.6 preliminary weighted metered market average rating when it debuted on TV stations across the country, according to Nielsen. Researchers were heartened by the perf — which ranked fourth behind stalwart off-net laffers “Friends” (4.6) “Seinfeld” (4.0) and “Frasier” (3.8) — for several reasons.

First, the show’s launch promotion virtually got knocked out. A week of promo appearances by the skein’s cast during the week of the terror attacks was canceled due to the disaster. Also due to the attacks, local TV stations have had less time than in past seasons to sked much in the way of on-air promos, which let viewers know when to tune in.

“Raymond,” like most syndie fare, is also fighting an uphill battle to draw viewers, as local TV signals are still weakened in New York City and traditional viewing patterns nationwide are disrupted by auds’ continued search for news updates.

Despite the setbacks, the “Raymond” debut matched that of “3rd Rock From the Sun” on Sept. 13, 1999, and topped that of “Drew Carey” the same day in ’99.

“Raymond” is being closely watched, as it’s one of the highest-profile new entries to the off-net sitcom business, which has weathered some disappointing laffer debuts in recent seasons: “3rd Rock” and “Drew” cost stations plenty and preemed in a season with little distraction.

The off-net runs of “Just Shoot Me,” “King of the Hill” and “Steve Harvey” officially rolled out last week, arguably an even more difficult frame than this one in which to break through. “Shoot” earned a 2.1 this week on Monday, “King” a 2.6 and “Harvey” a 1.4.

Meanwhile in the off-net comedy business, Twentieth Television has cleared repeats of “The Hughleys” for a fall 2002 launch on stations repping coverage of more than 65% of the country.

Twentieth Television’s “Hughleys” has been sold to 55 TV stations, including WNYW/WWOR New York, KTTV/KCOP Los Angeles and WCIU Chicago, in a barter-only two-year deal.

Twentieth’s head of sales Paul Franklin said he was “absolutely” encouraged by the “Raymond” debut numbers as well as those of “King of the Hill,” which Twentieth distributes.

“Off-net sitcoms still rule in those time periods (the 5-8 p.m. blocks on stations such as the Fox stations and Tribune stations),” Franklin said. “They’re still strong, recognizable and promotable. That’s still the avenue that stations want to take and will continue to take.”

Twentieth TV prexy-chief operating officer Bob Cook said he has high hopes for “Hughleys” next year, as skein’s lead D.L. Hughley is a rising star.

“One of the key ingredients to this kind of program’s success is having a guy like him who has life outside sitcoms. He’s got movies, does standup tours and is a guest on many shows,” Cook said. “When you have somebody who is that pervasive in the marketplace, it helps the marketing of show. There’s an appetite for him and clearly a following for this show.”

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