Off-net comedies thriving, but first-run daytime aches

For syndication, these are the best of times and the worst of times: Off-net sitcoms are selling for record-setting prices, while firstrun programs struggle to find buyers.

For the off-net sitcom business, simple economics apply. The scarcity of hit shows that can build time periods and catalyze a station’s business — such as what Warner Bros.’ “Two and a Half Men” has done for Tribune — drives up the prices for these special shows.

In 2010, Warner Bros. and Twentieth Television sold “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family,” respectively, for approximately $850,000 per week to broadcast stations. Both shows also were sold to cable networks — “Big Bang” to TBS and “Modern Family” to USA — for approximately $1.4 million per week, bringing each show’s weekly take to around $2.25 million in cash. Sitcoms tend to earn half their revenue from national barter advertising sales, so that should add another $2-plus million per week in ad sales. At some $4.5 million per week for each show’s first cycle, it’s a wonder that studios produce anything other than sitcoms in an attempt to hit the jackpot.

For firstrun shows, the picture is much less pretty. Only one major studio is launching a firstrun program this year: Warner Bros.’ talker featuring Anderson Cooper, which will premiere in the fall. The only other firstruns set to preem are Debmar-Mercury’s “Jeremy Kyle” and, on a smaller scale, Entertainment Studios’ “Who Wants to Date a Comedian?”

Syndicators are in the market selling shows such as CBS Television Distribution’s “The Lawyers” and “Excused,” Tribune’s “Bill Cunningham” and Trifecta’s “Last Shot With Judge Gunn” and “Geek Meets Girl,” but none of those syndicators had any announced clearances.

Part of the problem for firstrun shows is a lack of viable time periods. The law of scarcity applies here too: Healthy time periods are filled with incumbent shows that are renewed out for years to come, while there’s no lack of struggling time periods occupied by underperforming shows.

“Even if you clear the major markets, you still need the rest of the country,” says one syndicator. “If all you have left are broken time periods on independent TV stations, that’s not going to help you at all. That creates difficult and challenging economics.”

That dynamic also creates a vicious cycle: The available time periods aren’t lucrative ones, so syndicators aren’t motivated to take too many shots. The less-watched daytime becomes, the less able stations can justify paying for programs to fill it.

“It’s not that stations don’t want to invest, it’s that realistically they can only invest in relation to what their return is going to be,” says Katz Television Group programming veep Bill Carroll.

There are still some time periods worth producing for — late afternoon, early fringe and access, in particular. And obviously some shows — Disney-ABC’s “Live With Regis and Kelly,” Warner Bros.’ “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in some markets — are profitable in the morning. It’s a matter of finding the right fit, and that remains a tough proposition.

“Stations aren’t going to decide to spend more money because they have additional revenue,” says Ira Bernstein, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “They are going to spend more money because someone comes up with a show that justifies them spending more money.”

That’s essentially what’s happening with the big off-net sitcoms — the shows have proven to be worth it so stations are digging deep and finding the money.

“There’s no denying the success of shows such as ‘Modern Family,’ ‘Big Bang Theory’ and ‘Two and a Half Men,’?” says one syndicator. “The shows that are generating record license fees in off-net are proven commodities.”

More from NATPE 2011:
Stations savor reinvigorated cash flow | Stations face post-‘Oprah’ conundrum | Local affiliates look to grow their own | Miami heats up NATPE | Split personality at NATPE | What’s coming to market at NATPE?

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