Off-Net Strips Ratings, But Coin Remains King

“Seinfeld” and “Home Improvement,” the two highest-rated series in network primetime, almost certainly will fall off in the Nielsens next season for one big reason: The sitcoms are plunging into their parallel lives this fall as five-a-weekers in rerun syndication.

“The odds are that the firstrun episodes of these shows will suffer immediate rating declines” because of their off-network exposure, says Steve Sternberg, senior partner of the BJK& E Media Group.

In a survey published by BJK& E, Sternberg charted the Nielsen rating performance of the 22 series since fall 1987 that continued on network weekly primetime schedules the year they started rerun syndication.

The research turned out to be an eye-opener even to Sternberg – 18 of the 22 series showed declines, some of them substantial, in their primetime network runs. Six of the 18 dropoffs plummeted more than 20% in household ratings the year their reruns started turning up on the syndie schedule: MCA TV’s “Coach” (a 45% nosedive), Warner Bros. TV’s “Night Court” (32%), “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (27%) and “Growing Pains” (23%), Twentieth TV’s “The Simpsons” (21%) and MTM TV Distribution’s “Rescue 911” (21%).

Sternberg acknowledges, however, that it’s hard to prove direct cause-and-effect for these Nielsen stumbles because only two of the six – “Fresh Prince” and “Rescue 911” – kept the same time periods they inhabited the previous year. Often, a series that’s shuffled into a new environment on its fifth birthday loses regular watchers who refuse to alter their viewing habits to accommodate network schedulers. Most industry executives view Sternberg’s data as suggestive rather than conclusive – which is why the networks are not besieging production houses to push back the start of off-network series in syndication from year five of their network run to year six or even year seven.

“This issue is not a big concern of ours,” says Dan McDermott, executive VP of current series and specials, Fox Network TV. “Most TV series have an organic lifespan, and when they get to their fifth year they’re often beginning to dip in the ratings.”

Kim LeMasters, president of Stephen J. Cannell Prods, and a former head of programming for CBS, says household ratings in the fifth year of a show’s network run are not nearly as important as the young-adult numbers.

And even if the networks were eager to lock in an exclusive run of a hit primetime sitcom in its fifth season, “they couldn’t come up with enough money to get a studio to agree” to withhold the show from syndication for a year or two, says Fred Silverman, president of his own production company and a former top exec at each of the Big Three networks.

Various sources say that network license fees cover only about 75% of the production cost of the average primetime series. But if a series, particularly a sitcom, stays on the network for at least four years, the production/distribution company can reap anywhere from $800,000 to $3 million an episode for the first five rerun years of a comedy in domestic syndication.

One of the main reasons that TV stations are willing to lay out such big bucks for an off-network sitcom is that they’re getting the show while its original episodes are still pulling in big ratings on the network. “My clients want these shows as soon as they can get them because stations want that sizzle,” says Janeen Bjork, VP and director of programming for Seltel, which reps more than 100 TV stations throughout the country.

Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for rep firm Katz Television, says the marketing plans for the next three potential powerhouses in off-network syndication – Columbia TriStar TV’s “Mad About You,” Paramount TV’s “Frasier” and Casey-Werner TV’s “Grace Under Fire” – guarantee the shows will make their way to stations in year five of their network runs.

ABC might even argue that the reruns will help the network primetime ratings: It can point to “Roseanne,” “Full House” and “Family Matters,” three ABC comedies that, according to the Sternberg study, got a boost in their fifth year despite the nationwide availability of these shows in off-network syndication.

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