'Sex' sells and sets the stage for other shows

HBO gave birth to the first $100-million cable-to-syndication baby last week when it sold reruns of “Sex & the City” to Tribune’s 26 owned-TV stations.

Other cable shows are waiting in the wings for potential big-dollar harvests from the syndication of their reruns: “South Park” to be distributed by Mort Marcus’ Debmar Studios, which has begun pitching TV station groups; and, further down the road, HBO’s “The Sopranos” and Sony’s “The Shield.”

The $100-million estimate of “Sex & the City” covers the dollar yield HBO could end up pocketing from cash license fees and ad revenues over the four years of the syndication contract both with Tribune’s outlets in 35% of the U.S. and with TV stations in the remaining 65% of the country.

“We’re finally seeing a major trend in firstrun cable shows going into syndication,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for the Katz TV Group, the station consultants.

It took a long time for the trend to surface, Carroll says, because “until recently, cable wasn’t producing series that lasted long enough to build up 100 episodes,” which TV stations can play five times or more a week in reruns without wearing them out.

Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media Corp., another station consultancy, says, “Cable networks are finally producing higher-quality programming, which has real value in the marketplace, post-firstrun.”

No one is happier about the opening up of the syndication marketplace for cable series than Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures TV.

Mosko successfully cleared TV stations in more than 90% of the U.S. for a half-hour-rerun version of the 60-minute TBS reality series “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

Stations, which paid no cash for “Ripley’s,” begin stripping it this month. Sony gets its revenues from the three minutes it holds back within each “Ripley’s” half-hour episode for sale to national advertisers.

Mosko has begun pitching another cable show, the hourlong drama “Strong Medicine,” booked for its fourth season on Lifetime, to TV stations for weekend play, beginning in 2005. Sony will proceed to sell the five-a-week run of “Medicine” to a basic-cable network.

Two years ago, Sony sold weekend runs of HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” to TV stations, in a shared window with Bravo, which stripped it late in the evening.

But “Sanders” never piled up big Nielsen numbers when it ran on HBO, despite praise from critics and TV professionals, and it didn’t make an impact on basic cable or TV syndication.

Going back in time, says Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime, there were plenty of series that shuttled between cable and syndication. But none of them generated the kind of headlines that cause the industry to sit up and take notice.

One of the most notable of these cable-to-syndication transplants is MGM’s “Stargate SG-1,” the TV version of the hit theatrical movie, which began life as a weekly hourlong series on Showtime in July 1997.

To boost its license fees for a show that was getting too expensive to produce, MGM got Showtime to agree to allow the studio to sell “Stargate” episodes to syndication. The episodes ran simultaneously on Showtime and in syndication, but Showtime got at least a six-month exclusive window to each hour.

After Showtime dropped “Stargate,” the Sci Fi Channel bought the cable rights and kept the series in production. “”Stargate” is now Sci Fi’s consistently highest-rated series, and it still plays in syndication.

“Stargate” could serve as an imperfect early model for the syndication deal HBO has struck with Tribune for “Sex & the City.” As costs of cable series keep rocketing higher and higher, “the media companies start looking to recoup their investment,” says Brooks.

He cites “the financial challenges” of HBO’s parent company AOL Time Warner as a spur to the network, prodding it “to go after the pot of cash that’s sitting out there in syndication.”

Marcus, whose Debmar will syndicate “South Park,” says he’s expecting the cable-to-syndication trend to intensify in the next few years because there are fewer and fewer certified hits being manufactured by the broadcast networks.

Broadcast primetime is the dominant source of series reruns, which are a staple of the hundreds of TV stations affiliated with Fox, the WB and UPN. That source is drying up: The last breakout sitcom hit was “Malcolm in the Middle,” which premiered on Fox four years ago.

The empty broadcast larder has given Marcus an opening for “South Park,” which could gross between $50 million and $75 million from license fees and barter advertising during the course of its four-year syndie window.

Although Mosko says it’s too early to start talking about Sony’s high-rated FX series “The Shield,” which won a best-actor Emmy for its star Michael Chiklis, TV stations might be open to buying it as a Monday-through-Friday late-night strip. More young men watch late-night TV than any other daypart, and “Shield” draws a large portion of its viewers from men 18 to 49.

And now that HBO has landed the Tribune deal for “Sex & the City,” it’s almost certain to start testing the syndie waters for “Sopranos,” which could stimulate station general managers into open up their checkbooks.

As Mosko puts it, “The days of making a label which says, ‘That’s a cable show,’ and ‘That’s a broadcast show,’ are gone. Starting now, you can throw out all the rulebooks.”

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