Viewers abandon long-running comedies

Comedy in TV syndication continues to be anything but a laughing matter.

Gloom replaces good cheer when the industry ponders the accelerated ratings erosion of three bellwether off-net sitcom reruns of the past five years — a situation assuaged only some by the emergence of “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” a popular new cable comedy that will enter the syndie cycle in fall 2008.

The three long-running sitcoms — “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends” — are crucial to the health of TV stations with sitcom blocks because these shows can serve as high-rated lead-ins to lesser comedies in blocks scheduled between 6 and 8 p.m.

Not only are viewers deserting the aging hit comedies but TV stations may have to contend with a powerful new player in the marketplace, TBS, which owns exclusive rights to “House of Payne” for the next 15 months.

But the immediate problem for the stations is the hemorrhaging of viewers. According to Nielsen, “Friends” fell off by 27% in household ratings this past season (September-May), and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Seinfeld” each dropped by 18%. (Reruns of “The Simpsons” draw sizable audiences in syndication, but Twentieth TV, the distrib, gets no national-advertising time in the episodes, so the industry doesn’t track its ratings.)

“When perennial sitcoms like these start to show double-digit declines, TV stations have a right to be concerned,” says Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz TV, which represents hundreds of stations. Some of the “Seinfeld” slippage comes from a technicality in barter advertising on TBS, says the show’s distrib Sony Pictures TV.

But no matter how you slice it, “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Raymond” are “so far down from where they were a few years ago,” says Garnett Losak, VP of programming for Petry TV, another station-rep firm.

“Friends” has lost almost half its audience in the past five years, plummeting from a 7.0 household rating in 2002-03 (when originals were going strong on NBC) to a 3.6 this season. During the same period, “Seinfeld” fell from a 6.9 rating to a 4.5. The five-year slippage of “Raymond” is not as dizzying (6.2 to 5.1), as the series shot up by 24% in the 2004-05 season when TBS started airing it.

At the opposite end of Nielsen’s spreadsheets, “House of Payne” made a big debut June 6 on TBS. Back-to-back segs averaged 5.5 million viewers, making it the highest-rated sitcom in the history of ad-supported cable (though it fell to a still-strong 3.1 million in week two).

TBS skeds only two half-hours of “Payne” each week. Stations won’t get access to it until September 2008 because they want to start running the episodes five times a week, and Perry will not complete 100 half-hours for another year.

The success of “Payne” has reinforced the growing strength of TBS — whose logo highlights the words “very funny” — as a potential competitor to TV stations for the rights to the latest off-network comedies. TBS is also aggressively producing its own original sitcoms such as “My Boys,” “10 Items or Less” and the forthcoming “Bill Engvall Show.” “Boys” and “10 Items” each earned second-season renewals.

TBS boasts that it has beaten TVstations to the punch not only with “Payne” but with two other syndie laffers: “Family Guy,” whose reruns have played on both TBS and its Adult Swim sib, and “Sex and the City.”

The rise of TBS is not lost on NBC Universal, which is maneuvering to pre-sell reruns of “The Office” in syndication for fall 2009. Under the traditional pattern, NBC U would sell the show to TV stations market by market (starting with either the Fox or Tribune group) for a three-year exclusive window. In year four, a cable network — usually TBS for sitcoms — would buy a five- or six-year license term to that sitcom. Contracts would overlap, so the comedy would run simultaneously on cable and broadcast TV.

But that pattern may be headed for the scrap heap: TBS is talking to NBC U about stepping up and buying “The Office” to run day/date with TV stations, which would be a first for a high-visibility off-network comedy.

“The Office” draws food demos on NBC, but is not a broad draw. As Magna Global’s Steve Sternberg puts it, “While more edgy comedies might attract a small, upscale audience, most viewers are looking for comfort food” when they seek out a sitcom.

If you want comfort, Warner Bros. has “Two and a Half Men,” which starts its syndie run this fall. “Stations are hoping it can breathe life into their aging sitcom blocks,” says Losak.

Warners did its “Men” deal last summer: three years exclusive to stations, followed by a shared window in cable with FX (which, surprisingly, outbid TBS).

Judging by the scarcity of A-list half-hours on the broadcast-network schedules, “Men” may end up as the last of the big-bucks sitcoms. An estimated $4 million an episode could flow into Warners’ coffers based on license fees from stations ($1.8 million a half-hour), fees from FX ($700,000 per seg) and advertising revenue from the three 30-second spots in each syndie run throughout the first cycle (another $1 million to $1.5 million per, depending on the ratings and the health of the advertising marketplace).

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