Off-net biz on again

Warners expects 'Men' to make major splash

All the talk about the death of network comedies seems to have, well, died with successful debuts this season of NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” and UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris.”

Still, with these laffers a few years away from hitting the aftermarket, A-tier sitcoms remain precious commodities in off-net syndication — a neat little market dynamic right now for Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution, which has “Two and a Half Men” to sell.

At NATPE, Warner will be laying the groundwork for what will likely be a fall 2007 launch for the CBS comedy — an off-net launch that has more potential than anything that’s come down the pipe since King World sold “Everybody Loves Raymond” to stations in 2001.

“In terms of competition, there’s no other show in the same league that’s available right now,” says Jim Paratore, exec VP for WBTVD and president of Telepictures Prods.

“It’s likely that ‘Two and a Half Men’ will command substantial license fees, if not record license fees, given the scarcity of first-tier programs,” adds Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for media rep firm Katz TV.

Anchoring CBS’ Monday night comedy block this season, “Men” has averaged a 5.0 rating/12 share in adults 18-49 and 15.1 million viewers overall, down only slightly from the 5.8/13 rating and 16.5 million viewers it scored last year when it followed the final season of “Raymond.”

But while proving that it can stand on its own outside “Raymond’s” shadow will certainly help “Men’s” syndie bargaining power, the series could find itself paired again with “Raymond” in off-net, according to Carroll.

In the bigger TV markets, “Men” likely will end up programmed in access and late-fringe time periods on either Tribune or Fox stations.

Tribune currently has the off-net rights to “Raymond,” but will surrender them to Fox in March 2008 when the series’ second syndie cycle begins. Fox paid around $2.2 million an episode in licensing fees for those rights, about double the first-cycle price.

Indeed, until “Earl” or “Chris” accumulates enough episodes to enter the off-net realm, the hegemony of “Raymond,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld” probably will continue.

Fox, for example, paid a reported $3 million per episode to Sony for the third cycle of “Seinfeld.” Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has cash licensing deals totaling $4 million an episode to keep “Friends” in broadcast syndication through 2013, in addition to lucrative cable contracts with Nick at Nite and TBS.

While no sitcom besides “Men” appears ready to challenge those veteran series, syndicators will be broaching a number of other intriguing off-net possibilities at NATPE.

Twentieth TV will be laying the promotional groundwork for a probable 2007 launch of the animated “Family Guy,” and Buena Vista TV will be making broadcast syndie moves for NBC laffer “Scrubs” — a series it already sold to Comedy Central. Warner Bros. also has ABC’s “George Lopez Show” to sell.

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