Syndies rewrite sitcom script

Nets embrace sale of 'Payne'

Two random news stories last week — Dick Robertson’s retirement as president of Warner Bros. Domestic TV, and the sale of “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” sitcom to TBS and four Fox TV stations — may end up as being anything but random.

During his three decades as a top syndication exec, Robertson had a big influence on shaping the traditional major-studio model of how to sell programs to cable networks and TV stations.

But Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein, who run Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury, the distributor of “House of Payne,” are convinced that the syndie business as embodied by Robertson is desperate to start breaking the old rules, particularly with sitcoms.

What Perry and Debmar-Mercury have come up with is a phenom that’s unique in the history of television: They’ll deliver, first to TBS and then to TV stations throughout the country, a 100-episode sitcom right out of the box. From day one, the buyers will be able to schedule the comedy five or 10 times a week.

And in a further departure, Perry actually wrote, produced and directed 10 episodes of the show for an unprecedented 10-market test earlier this summer. The test got an A on the Nielsen report card for all 10 markets, and the show was off and running.

The series follows the members of a multigenerational family who live under one roof: Parents, their divorced son and his two children, with other characters that include his ex-wife, his girlfriend and the nosy next-door neighbor.

In an era when top-rung sitcoms are as scarce as bar mitzvah invitations to Mel Gibson, Debmar-Mercury is expecting to clear at least 90% of the country when “Payne” becomes available to the syndication marketplace in fall 2008.

In the past, the sitcoms ordered by cable or syndication came in short bursts of 13 episodes or, at most, 22 episodes, suitable for play once a week. The hope, which rarely materialized, was that the comedy would draw an audience and get renewed every year until it reached the magic 100-episode quota.

The failure of that hope is the reason why cable networks and TV stations have had to fall back on the time-honored syndie blueprint: buying reruns of hit broadcast comedies, led by “Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Simpsons” and “Friends.”

But, except for “Simpsons” (which may go on forever), these reruns are getting a bit stale, and the orthodox way of doing business doesn’t appear to be yielding a bumper crop of replacement shows.

So the timing of “Payne” is exquisite, and the marketplace is responding.

TBS was so impressed with the ratings of the 10-market test of “Payne” earlier this summer that it agreed to pony up a six-year license fee of $45 million or so for the delivery of at least 75 episodes by next summer. (The final 25 half-hours will be available in 2008.)

For TBS, the 10-station test showed that “Payne,” unlike ethnic sitcoms such as “Girlfriends” and “The Parkers,” has potential crossover appeal. Perry says he loves the sitcoms produced by Norman Lear in the ’70s such as “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” which drew masses of both white and black viewers.

One lesson Perry has drawn from Lear, he says, is how to meld comedy and drama in a way that seems to appeal to a mass audience.

Fox is also bullish about “Payne”: The four-year license fee from the Fox-owned TV stations in New York, Houston, Dallas and Washington could hit about $15 million. An additional $25 million or so could flow in from other TV stations once Debmar-Mercury starts negotiating with station groups around the country. (It has plenty of time because TBS purchased a 15-month exclusive window.)

While the license fees can be estimated within some predictable range, what won’t be known for a couple of years is how much money Debmar-Mercury will pocket from the three 30-second national spots within each half-hour.

If the combined Nielsens of TBS and the TV stations average a 3 household rating from 2008 to 2012, “Payne” could chalk up as much as $25 million a year in advertising revenues. Added to the license fees from TBS and the stations, Debmar-Mercury could be giving birth to a $200 million baby.

And Perry would harvest about 60% of that $200 million because he plans to bankroll the $500,000-an-episode production cost of “Payne” at his Atlanta studio, taking advantage of Georgia as a non-union state. Of the remaining 40%, Debmar-Mercury gets about 30% as its distribution fee and the barter company hired to sell the advertising time would collect 10% of so.

A big, fat payday is nothing new to Perry, who has rewritten the return-on-investment guidelines with his first two movies: “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (cost: $5.5 million; domestic gross: $50.4 million) and “Madea’s Family Reunion” (cost: $6 million; domestic gross $63.2 million).

However, TV is a different animal from the movies, and if “Payne” proves to be a dud, advertisers won’t rush to support it.

But Perry would still come out OK: He’d put the 100 episodes out on DVD and make another fortune.

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