Old standards continue to mint dough

Panic buying may be too strong a phrase, but by shelling out record dollars for veteran sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” TV stations and cable nets are sending a message: The newer comedies stink.

At $3 billion and counting, Sony Pictures TV’s venerable “Seinfeld” (1990-98) — which picked up a third-cycle deal with the Fox-owned TV stations two months ago — will soon gross more money in the U.S. than any other series in TV history.

“Friends,” wrapping up its tenth and final season on NBC, should funnel about $2 billion overall into the coffers of Warner Bros. Domestic TV by 2011, making it the second biggest TV series grosser of all time.

And, earlier this year, King World succeeded in igniting a bidding war between the Fox and Tribune TV stations for the second cycle of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which may return for one more season on CBS, the show’s ninth.

Fox won the auction, as part of a dollar flow to KW which guarantees that “Raymond” will become only the fourth sitcom ever to harvest more money in its second cycle ($3.8 million an episode) than in its first ($3.5 million per episode).

(The three others are “Seinfeld,” Twentieth’s “Mash” and DLT’s “Three’s Company.”)

The Fox-owned stations are the major players for “Seinfeld” and “Raymond,” the Tribune O&Os have a TV-syndication lock on “Friends” and TBS has bought cable rights to each of three shows.

All three buyers have paid dearly for these shows because, as Marc Schacher, VP of programming for the Tribune stations, puts it, “we can’t count on another hit of the magnitude of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ coming along anytime soon.”

Schacher says he’s so concerned about the Great Sitcom Drought that Tribune’s development people are hard at work trying to come up with a firstrun half-hour series or two that they could shoehorn in the 5 to 8 p.m. timeslots every day as stopgaps for the diminishing supply of hit sitcoms.

Frank Cicha, Schacher’s counterpart as VP of programming for the Fox-owned TV stations, says, “If the right firstrun project came along, we wouldn’t hesitate to slot it in access,” referring to the 7-to-8- p.m. time period.

Fox experimented in Chicago by scheduling a daily access run of “On Air with Ryan Seacrest,” Twentieth TV’s talk-variety hour, which premiered in January mostly in late-afternoon time periods.

But “it just didn’t work” in access, says Cicha.

Some Fox O&Os have tried local news in the time period, which Cicha says is “an important way for a station to localize itself.” But these newscasts often end up competing with those of the ABC, CBS and NBC stations, which have had decades to establish viewer loyalty.

Fox’s flagship WNYW New York hasn’t made a Nielsen dent with its 90-minute newscast every evening at 5. Cicha says one problem with WNYW’s newscast is the incompatible lead-in of the syndicated “Family Feud.”

Cicha and Schacher are both unhappy that the major studios have embraced the DVD release of episodes of many of their TV series, which is likely to turn viewers away from watching reruns on TV that are stuffed with commercial interruptions.

And Cicha says he cringes every time the networks take additional runs of their high-visibility sitcoms like “Raymond” and “Simpsons,” often using them to replace lesser comedies, particularly during Nielsen sweep periods.

But Chuck Larsen, the syndie maven who’s president of October Moon Consultants, says second-tier sitcoms can still work on TV stations and cable networks.

“That ’70s Show,” for example, which is not considered one of the four A-list comedies (or Biggies, as Larsen calls them: “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Raymond” and “Simpsons”), found a whole lot more money when its distributor Carsey-Werner-Mandabach went back to TV stations to sell a second daily run of the show in years three and four.

Since the show is pulling solid young-adult demos in rerun syndication, TV stations in 70% of the U.S. jumped at getting a second run, allowing CWM to raise its estimate of first-cycle gross revenues to a strapping $700 million.

And Lifetime stunned the industry by ponying up $600,000 an episode for “Frasier,” as well as handing over three 30-second spots a day to Paramount TV, the distributor, despite the fact that the series has softened considerably in rerun syndication during the last few years.

Is the network-sitcom decline chronic or is the genre merely stuck in a down cycle?

The answer may depend on who’s residing in the White House, says Bob Levi, a syndication/cable consultant and former president of program acquisitions for Turner Broadcasting.

“It’s almost uncanny, and goes all the way back to Truman in 1948,” says Levi.

“When there’s a Republican administration, the sitcom declines and hour-long dramas prosper. When a Democrat becomes president, everything gets reversed: People start flocking to sitcoms and staying away from dramas.”

Asked why Democrats seem to favor sitcoms, and Republicans tilt toward dramas, Levi says: “Damned if I know.”

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