Comedies help TBS get last laugh

'My Boys,' 'Sex & the City' boost ratings

It took more than a decade, but TBS has finally thrown off its reputation as the “Andy Griffith Show”network.

“I think it’s safe to say we ain’t in Mayberry anymore,” says Jack Wakshlag, head of research for the Turner entertainment nets.

The promo campaign TBS drew up when it bought exclusive rights to “Sex & the City” three years ago started with the phrase, “From Mayberry to Manhattan.”

Throughout the 1980s and early ’90, reruns of the Griffith show became something of a cornball classic for the network, drawing such a widespread audience that the series practically defined not only TBS but cable TV as a category during the formative years of cable’s struggle to lure viewers away from the broadcasters.

Now, TBS has promising scripted originals to pair alongside a core group of young-skewing offnet sitcoms, and as a result, revenues are up while the network’s median age has come down.

TBS is now a weekly fixture among the top five cable networks in adults 18-49, and has recently trailed only football-driven ESPN in adults 18-34.

Among the original fare, Sony Pictures TV’s “My Boys” has been renewed for a third season, and the inhouse “Bill Engvall Show” will be back for a second go-round.

TBS also has four more years to go on its contract to carry an acquired original sitcom, “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” distributed by Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury, which premiered in June to a record audience for a cable comedy. “Payne” has since averaged about 3 million viewers in its premiere plays, more than half of whom are in the prized 18-49 demo.

Steve Koonin, president of the Turner entertainment nets, and his senior VP of the content-creation group, Michael Wright, may be proudest of TBS’ original scripted series, but two of the comedies making the biggest impact on the schedule are reruns: “Family Guy” and “The Office,” which are becoming bellwethers of the Tuesday primetime lineup.

For the month of October, the ratings of the four half-hours of “Family Guy” at 8 p.m. and the two of “Office” at 10 p.m. have demolished the shows that were in the time periods in October 2006 (a rerun mix of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Sex & the City”), beating them by 110% in adults 18-34 and by 49% in adults 18-49.

And because “Family Guy” and “The Office” skew so young, they’ve helped bring down the median ages of pretty much every other comedy on the network.

TBS this fall also benefited from the promotional platform of airing postseason Major League Baseball games for the first time. Though baseball skews older than the comedies, the net shot up to a near-record average of 3.1 million viewers — well more than double its year-ago perf.

The cabler now stands to harvest more than $650 million from Madison Avenue, a gain in the 10%-15% range vs. last year.

But TBS has one more revenue stream — the monthly fees it chalks up from cable operators. And cable-op executives are already steeling themselves against demands for big license-fee increases at contract-renewal time. TBS wants a lot more money than the $500 million or so it will pocket from cable-and-satellite subscriber fees this year.

Peter Smith, senior VP of programming for Broadstripe, the St. Louis-based cable operator, says he’s not inclined to give increases to networks like TBS based on jacked-up ratings because these nets always refuse to sign a contract calling for lower fees if the Nielsens go into a tailspin.

When TBS argues that its programming expenses have shot up so fast they’re nearing half-a-billion dollars a year in 2007, Smith says he won’t be sympathetic. “Why should I help to compensate TBS for the costs of a huge baseball contract” (which averages out to $150 million a year for seven years, starting in 2007). “I didn’t ask TBS to buy baseball.”

Jerry McKenna, head of programming for Cable One, the Phoenix-based cable op, says that even though he “recognizes that TBS is implementing its comedy-based strategy very well, I’m going to have trouble agreeing to big rate increases.”

Cable subscribers are up in arms about rocketing monthly bills, and Washington regulators are all ears. In this climate, McKenna says, it’ll be hard for cable ops to continue passing along to their customers license-fee hikes squeezed out by networks like TBS.

The network’s comedy blueprint looks like pure genius now, but Koonin shudders when he contemplates the next couple of years.

“The broadcast networks are failing to come up with new sitcoms in primetime,” he says, noting that network reruns have always served as the foundation of TBS’ schedule. For instance, “Sex & the City” lead-in episodes helped to funnel a mass audience into “My Boys.” Similarly, “Engvall” and “House of Payne” wouldn’t have generated as great an audience sampling if they weren’t surrounded by “Everybody Loves Raymond” half-hours when they made their debut.

“We often develop original programming consistent with the comedies that we acquire to gain ad advantage,” Wright says.

Koonin could, of course, begin stripping rerun episodes of TBS’ original series if they go on to run for five years or more. But, except for “Sex & the City” off HBO, repeats of cable comedies have no track record of success.

And forget about reruns on its own network: TBS could reap a dollar windfall by selling repeats of “Engvall” to TV stations in off-network syndication.

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