Networks weigh Internet distribution strategies

The multi-billion-dollar question facing the TV business increasingly boils down to a fundamental choice: Pay now, or pay later?

Nobody knows the answer, but the networks have begun betting more heavily on the first option, which doesn’t mean “pay later” can’t be salvaged provided that an ailing genre — the sitcom — gets off its sick bed.

This much we know: In what could augur a sweeping overhaul of their business models, major broadcasters have announced the next steps in their Internet/distribution strategy, whether it’s free downloads of NBC’s “Heroes” or accessing ABC’s “Lost” via AOL.

Most of these web approaches hinge on a “Pay now” philosophy, cashing in on programs early — usually within a week of (and sometimes before) their initial broadcast.

This represents a huge shift for an industry historically built around the theory of “Pay later,” with studios swallowing deficits banking on the promise of untold riches in syndication, once a hit show runs for five years and can begin repeating on local TV stations.

Those look like the good ol’ days, in part because the genre that traditionally delivered the gaudiest syndicated payoff, the situation comedy, has fallen out of favor. Even “CSI” would be hard-pressed to finger a single killer, but the suspects include increased competition, the availability of niche and bite-sized web-based comedy, the proliferation of reality TV, and new technology that undermines traditional scheduling tricks –making it harder to nurture a new show, for example, by sandwiching it between two proven ones.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, television played for the home run, with “The Cosby Show,” “Who’s the Boss?” “Roseanne,” “Home Improvement,” “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” throwing off hundreds of millions in profit (most joined the billion-dollar club), sparing local TV programmers from needing to do much more than write checks to fill their lineups.

With the spigot having all but dried up, the game has changed, as TV execs desperately try to manufacture runs with singles and doubles — a DVD sale here, a web download there, a tie-in videogame, comicbook or product-integration deal.

They might still score, but waiting for somebody to smack one into the bleachers sure sounded a whole lot easier.

As far as the long ball goes, “Two and a Half Men,” starring Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, might be the last gasp of that breed. The Warner Bros. sitcom features completely self-contained episodes, solid appeal among men and still packs in sizable audiences on CBS — all ingredients that historically thrive in rerun heaven. A few weeks into its syndicated afterlife, the show is performing moderately well.

The problem now is what comes next, as the dearth of legitimate hits has resulted in mildly popular comedies like “The Office” reaping lesser rewards by going straight to cable. And while there’s more comedy out there — such as Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program,” which returns soon in very funny fashion; or “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” which delivered solid ratings this summer for TBS — even in their diminished state, only the major networks appear capable of launching successes of a magnitude that could potentially arouse the form.

The new TV season has barely started, but so far the signs are mixed. Fox’s “Back to You” and CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” opened to respectable if unspectacular numbers, depending on whether they trend up or down. Meanwhile, ABC’s recent penchant for wrapping sitcoms with big concepts generally hasn’t worked, and the network has tellingly chosen to withhold its most-ballyhooed new half-hour, the Geico-inspired “Cavemen,” from the prying eyes of critics.

Nothing is more subjective than what people find funny, and the explosion of alternatives means there’s no longer consensus on that. Moreover, the preoccupation with using comedy to attract young men almost by definition blunts mass appeal — underscored by profitable niche commodities such as “Family Guy” and “South Park.”

Despite those formidable hurdles, though, it seems premature to pronounce the hit comedy (and all the benefits that come with it) dead, and I’d hate to be the executive that did so only to see somebody else gin up the next “Raymond” or “Friends” — albeit, surely, at more modest levels.

Despite the changes wracking the industry, one enduring formula throughout TV cycles remains Funny = $$$. Not that you need to be Einstein to figure that out, but it’s going to require a certain genius going forward to separate the boys from the “Men.”

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