Sitcoms stutter in syndie synergy

'Malcolm,' 'Queens' may not line up major-market deals before NATPE

NEW YORK — The economic cloud spreading across the showbiz community has dampened the spirits of syndicators who are hoping for a revenue bonanza from the reruns of “Malcolm in the Middle” and “King of Queens.”

Twentieth TV’s “Malcolm” and Columbia TriStar TV Distribution’s “Queens” are the two off-network sitcoms that, in an upbeat business climate, would’ve long since wrapped up their key TV-station deals, pocketing big bucks for the best of reasons: Experienced handicappers say the shows will continue to perform in rerun syndication for many years to come.

“Malcolm” and “Queens” are almost guaranteed to harvest cash license fees approaching the high end of $3 million an episode, says Chuck Larsen, head of his own company October Moon and a consultant to Columbia on “Queens.”

Kagan World Media says three hit series now in the syndication marketplace — Paramount TV’s “Frasier,” Warner Bros. TV’s “Friends” and Twentieth’s “King of the Hill” — has each fetched about $3 million a half-hour in license fees from stations.

The sitcom gold standard is Columbia’s “Seinfeld,” which harvested a total of $7.4 million an episode in two separate syndication cycles ($3.3 million in the first and $4.1 million in the second cycle).

Larsen is bullish on “Malcolm” and “Queens” because “there’s a shortage of high-quality sitcoms coming into syndication over the next couple of years,” he says.

If a TV station employing sitcom reruns in its lineup loses out on “Malcolm” and “Queens,” it could be hard-pressed to stay competitive when fall 2003 (the start date for “Queens”) and fall 2004 (the syndie debut of “Malcolm”) roll around.

The good news for Twentieth and Columbia is that most sitcom-dependent TV stations — and the New York-based rep programmers that advise them — tend to agree with Larsen and other handicappers.

The bad news is that the advertising economy has stumbled so grievously over the past year or so that “the distributors just wouldn’t realize the full asset value of the two shows if they tried to sell them now,” says one rep, who requested anonymity.

The TV spot marketplace shows very few signs of picking up in the foreseeable future, so station groups might hesitate to lay out the kind of dollars that would help both Twentieth and Columbia reach the magic $3-million-an-episode plateau for “Malcolm” and “Queens.”

Go with the flow

Most observers say the smart gameplan for now is not to try to go against the down economy: It’s looking more and more as though their distributors will not lock up major-market deals for “Malcolm” and “Queens” in advance of the National Assn. of TV Program Executives (NATPE) convention in January.

In boom times, distributors — after signing big-city TV stations in the fall — would’ve used NATPE as a momentum builder to clear their rerun shows in smaller markets.

The 2001-02 economy may be sluggish, but both 20th and Columbia will be doing a lot of maneuvering over the next couple of months as they try to dispel two precepts of conventional wisdom:

  • The Fox O&Os are a lock for “Malcolm” because Twentieth is a sister company, which will give the Fox stations the right to top the highest competitive bid in the marketplace.

  • The Tribune-owned stations will engineer a pre-emptive bid for “Queens” because it’s a tailor-made companion piece to “Everybody Loves Raymond,” whose reruns are now a staple of most Tribune outlets. The firstrun “Raymond” and “Queens” are the bellwethers of the CBS Monday night sked.

The industry is betting on the Fox-“Malcolm”/Tribune-“Queens” scenario because each of the two groups is well enough stocked with sitcoms — many of them humongously expensive — that it won’t have to go after both shows.

Columbia and Twentieth will try to whip up more demand by pitching the CBS and UPN stations to make a joint bid on the comedies in markets where Viacom owns both stations.

Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco are three such markets, and CBS and UPN could at least theoretically strip “Malcolm” or “Queens” across the two stations in different time periods, each promoting the other’s run.

But such a scheme may be impractical, says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for the Petry Media Corp., because “the brand identity of each of the stations would suffer — most of the programs on CBS reach a much different audience than the shows on UPN.”

“Not to mention,” she adds, “that you’d end up confusing the hell out of the viewers.”

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