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Big Three sitcom garden may bear syndie fruit

In the two years since ABC, CBS and NBC declared victory in their battle for a piece of the lucrative syndication revenue pie, the Big Three have yet to produce a hit.

The 1995-96 season could, however, change all that. Despite taking an ownership interest in fewer series than last year, the webs have actually improved their chances for success.

By taking advantage of some key opportunities to align themselves with A-list producers – and, in a few notable instances, each other – the networks have managed to secure stakes in several comedies that are positioned to achieve the sort of success that may augur a possible future in syndication.

Come September, many of the sitcoms with network ownership participants – such as NBC’s “Caroline in the City” and “The Single Guy,” ABC’s “Wilde Again” and CBS’ “Can’t Hurry Love” – are in plum time periods and have generated a favorable industry buzz. With a huge glut of sitcoms competing for attention, that could mean the difference between success and permanent hiatus.

Thus far, the networks have yet to achieve the sort of windfall delivered by mega-hits like “Home Improvement” or “Seinfeld,” though that prospect has always been at the heart of the fin-syn debate.

No favorites

Still, NBC Prods, president John Agoglia insists the networks are not showing favoritism toward their own shows.

“Looking at the scheduling board, you have to see what will be acceptable on certain nights,” he says. “If you make a mistake… it can tank an entire night.”

It has been a long time since NBC had as many strong nights, which obviously created more opportunities. The series in which the network has a participation, Agoglia notes, are “simply the right shows for the right time periods. We can’t operate on the basis of what we think the value of something will be five or six years from now, especially in this fast-changing environment.”

Some cynics contend the webs are less apt to move around their shows because it’s risky and can reduce their syndication value, but others dismiss those arguments. They point to Paramount’s “Wings” and “Frasier” as proof that schedule changes can work.

The Peacock web’s small interest in “Caroline” – the CBS Entertainment Prods, show (yes, CBS) that landed the coveted post-” Seinfeld” slot Thursday – came through its relationship with producer-director Jim Burrows. Agoglia notes that NBCP took a participation in the series because it “contributed mightily to what the elements are.”

After CBS passed on “Caroline,” NBCP recast it with Lea Thompson, who was under contract to the network, and changed many of the creative elements. The deal marked a banner year for CBS Entertainment Prods., which has a half-dozen series on its own web in addition to its NBC entry.

Top slots

The list of potential hits also includes “The Single Guy,” the result of a Castle Rock/NBC Prods, partnership, that will air at 8:30 p.m. Thursday between “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” NBCP and Castle Rock were both pursuing the series star, Jonathan Silverman, according to Agoglia.

“Wilde Again” – a production of Brillstein-Grey Communications, the partnership forged by Brillstein-Grey Ent. and CapCities/ABC – nabbed the 9:30 Wednesday slot after ABC’s “Grace Under Fire.”

The networks can nevertheless make their non-favoritism case in the unenviable timeslots they have afforded some of the shows in which they hold an ownership stake. Another Brillstein-Grey show, “Somewhere in America,” went into ABC’s less desirable Saturday berth, as did the NBC Prods./Paramount collaboration “JAG.”

In this year of strange bedfellows, ABC also has an interest in BGC’s returning NBC comedy “NewsRadio,” which landed the desirable 8:30 Tuesday hammock linking “Wings” with “Frasier.” In short, that means both ABC and CBS have a stake in programs airing on NBC – a scenario now being played out all across the industry, particularly with the launch of the Warner Bros. and United Paramount Networks.

Pillow for DreamWorks

“Champs,” the first series from the Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg-David Geffen partnership DreamWorks (another CapCities partner), was kept off the fall schedule. But after protests from DreamWorks and exec producer Gary David Goldberg, the series has reportedly been promised a certain number of airings in ABC’s best timeslot, after “Home Improvement.”

Since “Home Improvement” supplier Disney also wants that slot for its new show, “Buddies,” ABC faces a tricky juggling act in dealing with its high-powered suppliers. For that reason, the web has drawn the most heated responses to its scheduling moves, despite its insistence that the best program makes its lineup and that to do otherwise in scheduling would be counterproductive to the network itself.

From a production standpoint, CapCities seems to be banking more on the Brillstein-Grey and DreamWorks relationships, with ABC Prods, president Brandon Stoddard exiting that post and only one midseason comedy, “The Faculty,” ordered from that division.

“Can’t Hurry Love,” a CBS Ent. Prods/TriStar series, will air at one of the web’s few decent comedy slots, at 8:30 p.m. Monday after “The Nanny” (another TriStar show).

Columbia TriStar TV has been aggressive in teaming with the webs on such projects. Some studios pair up with the networks because they assume that every little bit helps. Until the past few years, the networks could not share in the highly profitable syndication rerun market and thus needed a distribution partner.

‘ Prince’ banished

NBC, for instance, was forced to sell its stake in the syndie hit “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” because it came along before the financial interest and syndication rules were relaxed. “Fresh Prince” is distributed by Warner Bros. through its ties with Quincy Jones-David Salzman Entertainment (QDE).

However, NBCP is participating with QDE on “In the House,” the spring tryout sitcom that nabbed the 8:30 Monday slot behind “Fresh Prince” this fall.

Whether or not the networks produce hits in the coming year, the potential for syndication gold will only make them come back with more next season. CapCities/ABC president-chief operating officer Bob Iger reiterated to the network’s affiliates last week that one of the company’s priorities is to “own and create more product.” How well the webs will eventually be able to cash in on that ownership – either on their network or another – may begin to take shape during the ’95-96 season.

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