Turner comedy buys rile stations

TBS changes game with 'Office,' 'Earl' reruns

A “game changer,” says Bill Carroll. “Everything is being thrown into turmoil,” adds Garnett Losak.

Carroll of Katz TV and Losak of Petry Media are programming experts who rep hundreds of TV stations throughout the country, and they’re still in shock over the bombshell dropped last month by TBS when it bought the cable rights to reruns of “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl” to run day-and-date with stations in syndication.

With those purchases, TBS has become king of the hill in the sitcom biz: The network already fills its schedule with the three most popular comedy reruns of the last dozen years — “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends” — supplemented by such steady repeat performers as “Family Guy” and “Sex and the City.”

But, although they still draw respectable numbers, “Seinfeld” and “Friends” have suffered viewer losses over the last few years, driving TBS to get a lock on their potential replacements, “Office” and “Earl,” even before TV stations signed their deals.

TBS will pony up about $650,000 an episode for “Office” and $625,000 for “Earl.” The Fox stations ended up buying “Office” for about $300,000 an episode; Twentieth TV is holding off until it gets better station-group offers for “Earl.”

Meanwhile, TV stations owned by Fox, the CW and MyNetworkTV, most of which depend on comedies to fill the hours between 4 and 8 p.m. and post-11 p.m., are freaked out.

“TBS is going to eat their lunch,” says Ira Bernstein, co-president of Debmar Studios, which syndicates “South Park” reruns and the original comedy “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”

As Bernstein puts it, “TBS is saying to sitcom distributors, ‘Treat us like the big guys’ — and the industry is definitely paying attention.”

Carroll says stations fed up with competing against TBS in the sitcom arena could start looking to program their schedules with “courtshows, magazine shows, and even talkshows, slotting different genres into what were sitcom timeslots.”

Fox and Tribune, the two giant station groups that set the agenda for local TV outlets in the rest of the country, “appear to be saying that we’d rather spend less money on a sitcom rerun even if it means we lose exclusivity to TBS,” Losak opines.

But Carroll says TBS’ ascendancy could be a wake-up call to Fox and Tribune, inducing them to pony up bigger bucks for the next A-list sitcom rerun in exchange for the three-year-exclusivity contract that was the norm before “Office” and “Earl.”

Steve Koonin, president of Turner’s entertainment networks, says using sitcom repeats as the linchpin for turning TBS into a comedy network has delivered big benefits.

“TBS is one of the youngest branded networks in all of cable TV,” Koonin says.

According to Steve Sternberg of media buyer Magna Global, TBS’ average primetime viewer is 38, compared with a combined average age of 50 for viewers of ABC, CBS and NBC.

An even bigger advantage to TBS is that popular reruns make it easier for the network to harvest viewers for the new comedies it’s beginning to commission from the major studios, to produce inhouse and to purchase from syndicators.

The rookie “House of Payne” is a success on TBS at least in part because the “Raymond” lead-in feeds well over a million people into each “Payne” half-hour. Similarly, another newcomer, “My Boys,” engineered a second-season renewal from TBS because it was building on its solid “Sex and the City” rerun lead-in.

While TBS is using reruns to shore up its originals, its TNT sibling, which focuses on hour dramas, has started employing originals to shore up originals. TNT has bought lots of reruns in the past, such as “Law & Order” and “Without a Trace.” But “Trace” has failed to live up to its Nielsen performance on CBS, and the ratings of “L&O” have fallen off over the last few years. Still, “L&O” was pulling down substantial numbers in June 2005 when Koonin used it to lead in to “The Closer,” which over-achieved bigtime.

So, instead of drawing on an episode of the declining “L&O” to lead the way to TNT’s original summer series “Heartland” and “Saving Grace,” TNT let a firstrun hour of “Closer” do the honors. “Heartland” is headed for cancellation because it failed to hold even half of the considerable audience for “Closer.”

And things may come full circle, because TBS owns its rookie sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show.”

“If TBS gets five or six years out of ‘Engvall,’ ” Koonin says, “we could very well sell the reruns to TV stations in syndication.”

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