TBS nabs rights for $1.5 million per episode

TBS felt it couldn’t afford to lose the show. The same was true for the Fox O&Os.

That dynamic added up to a record-shattering syndication deal for “The Big Bang Theory,” concluded in the wee hours of Saturday after spirited bidding last week.

Industry insiders said Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution expertly leveraged the demand for the studio’s red-hot CBS laffer among multiple cable and broadcast station buyers. Warner Bros. parlayed its rare commodity — a bona-fide hit sitcom — into high bids from both realms to ensure that the show will bow simultaneously in broadcast and cable in fall 2011.

TBS, which is sure to tout the deal at its upfront on Wednesday, is said to have committed to an eye-popping $1.5 million per episode over the initial term of the deal, which is believed to cover at least eight or nine seasons of the series. That would translate to $300 million-plus in cable license fees alone if “Big Bang” stays on the air long enough to rack up 200 or so episodes.

The series, co-created and exec produced by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, is about to wrap its third season on CBS.

The stars aligned for Warner Bros.’ syndie wing. “Big Bang” comes off a stellar perf this season and top cable and broadcast players were primed to jump for the biggest sitcom hit on the primetime horizon ( Daily Variety , March 26).

” ‘The Big Bang Theory’ presents an increasingly rare proposition for broadcast stations and cable services: the chance to acquire a traditional, multi-camera, A-tier comedy that is still expanding its audience on network television,” said WBDTD prexy Ken Werner. “A-tier sitcoms are a very rare breed that only come along once in a television generation.”

Fox stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and seven other markets landed the show in bidding against Tribune Broadcasting stations. Fox is believed to have committed to a license fee of about $100,000 a week in both New York and L.A. The deal for broadcast stations is capped at nine seasons, which would take the initial license term through 2018 for stations.

The pact calls for TBS to run the episodes in primetime while stations will run the show in early evening and latenight slots.

For cable and broadcast, the accord calls for Warner Bros. to receive 1½ minutes of barter advertising time in each episode — which promises to add another $100 million-plus to the studio’s haul from the show each year.

None of the parties involved would comment on financial terms of the deal. But the cable purchase price sent jaws dropping as word of the agreement spread over the weekend. TBS’ megabucks purchase comes on the heels of its pact with Conan O’Brien for a latenight show to bow later this year and the Turner cablers’ $10.8 billion deal with CBS for NCAA men’s basketball tourney rights over the next 14 years.

In the cable record books, TBS’ “Big Bang” purchase beats the $1 million per ep it paid for “Seinfeld” rerun rights (a few years after the show proved a monster hit in syndication for broadcasters). It also tops the previous record for a first-cycle off-net sitcom sale, set by FX at $800,000 for “Two and a Half Men.” “Men,” another Lorre laffer, has done boffo syndication biz for stations since 2007; its run on FX begins this fall.

Moreover, the pricetag for “Big Bang” is nearly double what TBS paid for its recent high-profile off-net pickups, NBC’s “The Office” and Twentieth TV’s “My Name Is Earl.”

But having missed out on the “Men” windfall, TBS was expected to compete fiercely for “Big Bang.” The cabler has built its primetime sked on a mix of original and acquired sitcoms. It counts on the off-net hits to drive auds to its original fare, and “Big Bang” no doubt also will be tapped as a lead-in to O’Brien’s 11 p.m. talker.

“Big Bang” is “already a tremendous hit among young adult viewers, making it an ideal fit for TBS’ lineup,” said Michael Wright, exec VP and heading of programming for TBS, TNT and TCM.

The Fox O&Os faced the same urgency to nab the show as TBS. Tribune Broadcasting stations snapped up “Men” when it went on the block in 2006, and during the past three years the show’s success has helped keep the lights on for the Fox O&Os’ primary local rivals even as Tribune Co. struggled through ownership changes and the 2008 bankruptcy filing.

“Big Bang” has many of the same attributes as “Men”: It’s a broad audience favorite with strong appeal among male viewers. The show impressed in its first two seasons in the 8 p.m. lead off slot to CBS’ Monday comedy block, but its numbers took off this season when CBS moved it to the 9:30 p.m. berth behind “Men.” “Big Bang” has since overtaken “Men” as primetime’s top comedy in the adults 18-49 demo.

“When the top sitcom on television becomes available, you have to take it seriously from both a qualitative and competitive standpoint,” said Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for Fox TV Stations.

In contrast “Big Bang,” the biz trend recently for off-net sitcom deals is for the cable buyers to get an early jump on broadcast stations in airing episodes. They previous norm had been for cable to wait years for its window.

In a nod to broadcasters’ needs, TBS will not be able to run the show between 6 and 8 p.m., the peak off-net time period for stations, for the first two years of the deal.

USA Network and a group of Viacom-owned cablers led by MTV were factors in the initial bidding that began early last week. But as the cable price climbed past $1 million, the jockeying came down to TBS and FX.

Tribune was said to have pushed for a secondary window on its WGN America cable sibling as part of its overall bid for broadcast rights. That was a non-starter for WBDTD.

With Fox set as the launch group in key major markets, Warner Bros.’ syndie sales force will soon start shopping “Big Bang” to other station groups.

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