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Syndication no joking matter for sitcoms

When television syndicators reminisce about the good old days, their minds naturally wander to the heady 1980s when the situation comedy “The Cosby Show” sold on average for more than $ 4 million an episode.

That, of course, was the high-water mark for the ever-changing syndication business. Since then, prices for off-network sitcoms in the re-run market have dropped considerably. And no one can forsee a time when programs of the genre will command those kinds of dollars again.

But those same exex are optimistic about the future prospects for sitcoms in syndication. The market may not be as robust as it once was, but in a business where the failure of new programs is almost as common as power lunches, sitcoms offer the best chances for TV success, year-after-year.

“The most successful genre in television is the sitcom,” declared Bob Jacquemin, president of Buena Vista Television, pointing out that since 1987, the highest-rated new shows in syndication every year have been sitcoms. This season, for example, “Roseanne” reigned as the No. 1 new strip in syndication.

“A great sitcom is still the end of the rainbow for a producer/distributor,” said Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth Television domestic TV.

But the market is getting crowded. One source estimated that by fall 1996, there may be as many as 25 half-hour sitcoms competing for space in the syndication marketplace.

Making their national sales debuts at the recently concluded 30th annual conference of the National Association of Television Program Executives in San Francisco were a line-up of off-net sitcoms from the major studios.

Buena Vista was hawking “Blossom,””Empty Nest,””Dinosaurs” and “Home Improvement”; MCA, “Coach” and the hour-long “Northern Exposure”; Twentieth Television, “The Simpsons” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” and Warner Bros., “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Family Matters.”

Although the advertising recession is lifting, and with it the improved outlook prospects of TV stations, few observers expect all these shows to easily find a home on the TV dial. That’s particularly so in light of the slew of firstrun talk shows competing for early-fringe time periods.

Business patterns altered

Some television syndication industry exex believe that patterns of the business may have permanently changed. Barter–which became a factor in the economic downturn because stations lacked cash–will continue to play a role in television syndication deals for years to come, they say. And they also predict more off-net sitcoms will be sold to cable networks, or share windows with those alternative channels.

Nearly everyone agrees the appeal of the sitcom is time-tested.

John von Soosten, VP-director of programming for Katz TVGroup, said that unlike dramas, “you can watch Lucy and Ethel a million times and not tire of them.”

Dramas require certain levels of uninterrupted viewer attention, but audiences can catch snippets of a sitcom and still receive the pay-off of a few laughs. And the half-hour format is easy for stations to program. But with so many shows in competition for a place on TV station schedules, syndicators are facing pressure on prices.

Robert Jennings, VP of media research at Warner Bros. Television, said prices stabilized in 1990, following price drops that followed the big highs of the 1980s. However, the range of prices off-net sitcoms can fetch varies greatly in today’s environment–anywhere from $ 500,000 to $ 1.5 million an episode.

“The Cosby Show” bonanza of $ 4 million-plus an episode is a number BV’s Jacquemin doubts he “will ever see again in my lifetime.” Today, $ 1 million an episode–reportedly what “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown” received–are considered top prices.

In analyzing the marketplace, Warner Bros.’ Jennings has identifed three tiers. First, there are the hit off-net TV shows that are in demand, such as “Married with Children,””Full House,” or “Home Improvement.” Then, there are off-net sitcoms that may not have huge ratings behind them, but can demonstrate specific demographic appeal, key selling points.

The third tier consists of off-net shows that may have lasted three or four seasons on the networks, but aren’t barn burners on either front. Shows in the third category will be subject to intense negotiations, according to Jennings.

Some argue that a strong sitcom will prevail–no matter what the competition. Twentieth’s Meidel thinks so. His company is peddling “The Simpsons” to TV stations for availability in fall 1994.

Since Fox has an exemption to the prime time access rule, Fox is pitching “The Simpsons” for 6-to-8 p.m. time periods. Competitors are trying to blunt Fox’s pitch by claiming the animated series appeals to younger audiences and isn’t the traditional adult-skewing sitcom.

Meidel is undaunted. “The really high end sitcoms, shows that make a network, there’s always a home for them,” he insisted.

The current competition means syndicators must use greater marketing sophistication in their pitches to stations.

Warner Bros., for example, has been touting the appeal of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s” highly-coveted 12-to-34-year-old demographic in sales pitches to stations.

Warners research showed that 12-to-34-year-olds make up 45% of the audience of indie TV stations. In its pitch, Warners is urging stations to market to their strength. And that audience segment can be reached, Warners argues, through “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

Barter began to make up a larger portion of syndication deals in recent years because stations were strapped for cash due to the economic slump. This season, “Designing Women,” a show that competitors say would have sold for $ 1 million an episode five years ago, went out as all-barter.

Many are hopeful that as the economy improves cash will make up a bigger part of future syndication deals, but most doubt barter will disappear entirely.

Inevitably, with all the competition, more and more sitcoms will show up on cable TV, syndication exex say. All the major cable networks were present at NATPE this year in their largest presence at the trade show to date.

“Major” cable deal

The glutted sitcom market prompted MCA-TV to sell “Major Dad” to USA Network, its 50%-owned cable network, in an exclusive deal a few months ago. It was a cable record sum of almost $ 600,000 per episode. That made it the first major off-net comedy series to go directly to cable.

Another factor that may prompt more cable deals is the trend toward dual windows on broadcast and cable. The sour economy is prompting WTBS and TV stations around the country to carry Buena Vista’s “Empty Nest” at the same time.

No one thinks the “Major Dad” deal will be the last such transaction. Word in the industry is that “Wings,” a property of Paramount, also half-owner of USA Network, will also strike a deal with that cable network. And Lifetime Television’s name surfaced as a contender for license rights to MCA’s “Northern Exposure.”

“At this point, there’s barely a comedy that isn’t considered for cable,” concluded one studio exec.

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