Networks still scheduling fewer half-hours

The sitcom boosters are out in force again, jumping on last week’s report that Twentieth TV has racked up more than $41 million from the sale of reruns of “How I Met Your Mother” to TV stations in eight major markets.

The deal was welcome news to the beleaguered advocates of half-hour comedies, who had begun to run out of steam after boisterously touting the successful kickoff last September of Warner Bros. Domestic’s “Two and a Half Men” and Twentieth’s “Family Guy” in off-network syndication.

Those two shows are continuing to perform in the Nielsens, but most of the other news about sitcoms in the past year is anything but uplifting: The broadcast networks are still scheduling far fewer half-hour comedies than just a few years ago, and only the CBS vet “Two and a Half Men” is among television’s 20 most-watched programs.

And some analysts interpreted the rush by TV stations and cable networks to glom on to “How I Met Your Mother” as not necessarily glad tidings for the business. According to this thesis, the landscape for future sitcoms looks so unpromising that it could be years before another even modestly successful half-hour like “Mother” makes its way into the marketplace.

But comedies are the bellwether of TV syndication, an industry that will pile up about $4.5 billion in revenues this year just from ad revenues extracted from national spots in syndie programs. Advertisers will funnel more billions directly to TV stations in local-spot buys.

Sitcoms are crucial to this dollar equation, says Mitch Burg, president of the Syndicated Network TV Assn., because, on average, they deliver a significantly younger group of viewers than other genres of programming. The median age of people who watch sitcoms in rerun syndication is 37, much lower than those glued to talkshows, gameshows, court shows and repeats of hourlong dramas.

Sitcoms right now are at a premium on broadcast primetime, says Larry Novenstern, executive VP of national electronic media for Optimedia Intl., because of “the large number of reality-based programs, which are much cheaper to produce” than half-hour comedies.

But lots of Optimedia’s clients buy off-network sitcoms in syndication, so Novenstern will be watching closely how well NBC Universal’s “The Office” and CBS TV Distribution’s “Everybody Hates Chris” perform when they make their debut in syndication a year from now. (“Mother” doesn’t premiere until September 2010.)

Another top media buyer, Andy Donchin, senior VP of Carat USA, says, “Top-tier syndicated comedies like ‘Two and a Half Men,’ ‘Family Guy’ and ‘Seinfeld’ are huge on the radar of our clients.” Donchin says some of his advertisers are such “great believers in syndication” that they’ll pull money from network primetime to buy sitcom reruns.

But Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media, which represents groups of stations, says it’s premature to break out the party hats and noisemakers. Losak thinks TV stations may have overpaid for “The Office” because, unlike “Two and a Half Men,” they’ll have to share the multiple runs of “The Office” with TBS when it starts in fall 2009.

TBS will be scheduling the show in time periods that could pull viewers away from watching it on their local stations, she says. “TBS does so well in some markets,” she adds, “that it’s like another local station that’s carrying the same programming as my station client, which has committed considerable capital to buying ‘The Office.’ “

But Bob Cook, president of Twentieth TV, while sympathizing with Losak’s concerns, cites the realities of the marketplace. He says distributors like Twentieth have no choice but to sell their off-net sitcoms simultaneously to TV stations and cable networks because the cablers are willing to pony up strapping license fees to secure the day/date runs. Leaving cable money on the table is not the best recipe for holding down a secure job at a TV-distribution company.

Beyond license fees, distributors can pile up millions of extra dollars from packaging spots in TV syndication and on cable networks.

For example, the 110 episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” could be worth close to a millions dollars apiece from sale of the advertising spots in cable and syndication during the four-year life of the contract, based on the track record of previous off-network sitcoms. (Twentieth is taking bids from a number of networks eager to buy cable rights to “Mother” and will announce the winner in the next month.)

Cable could become even more important in the dollar equation as the Tribune stations struggle to operate under the burden of heavy corporate debt. Because it owns the CW-affiliated stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, Tribune is a significant buyer of off-network sitcoms. But Tribune stations were outbid in seven of the first eight markets to close on “Mother,” coming up with the show only in Seattle.

If a financially strapped Tribune finds that sitcoms are too rich for its pocketbook, the consequences for distribs could be dire. Tribune’s backing off could depress the marketplace for future comedies, including Twentieth’s “American Dad” (available 2009), Warner Bros.’ “New Adventures of Old Christine” (2010 or 2011), NBC Universal’s “30 Rock” (2011), and the Sony Pictures TV half-hours “Rules of Engagement (2010) and “‘Til Death” (2010).

Distribs of these shows could end up hard-pressed to chalk up the kind of nine-figure paydays that the industry has come to routinely expect from a long-running broadcast-network sitcom.

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