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HBO seeks basic ‘Sex’

Pay cabler's saucy sitcom aims for big bucks

NEW YORK — HBO will find out in the next few weeks whether basic cable is ready to pay through both nostrils for reruns of the raunchiest sitcom in the history of showbiz, “Sex and the City.”

HBO has begun putting out feelers to the effect that “Sex and the City” may be available as early as September 2002 with 65 half-hours in the can. Charles Schreger, president of HBO Enterprises, the distributor of “Sex,” figures to whip up a combative auction among at least seven cable nets: Lifetime, USA, TBS, TNN, FX, A&E and Comedy Central.

Such a bidding war could drive the license fee for “Sex” to the intoxicating heights of $800,000 or more an episode for a four-year license term. That would make the series the second most expensive half-hour rerun in U.S.-cable history, behind “Seinfeld,” for which Columbia TV harvested $1.05 million an episode from TBS for nonexclusive second-cycle reruns.

An HBO spokesman would say only that the network is considering a number of options, including basic cable, for the rerun episodes of “Sex.” But other sources say HBO will stress the following points in its sales pitches to cable networks, which will get under way in the next month or so:

n “Sex” is averaging an eye-popping 8.9 primetime rating in HBO homes for its Sunday-at-9 premiere run (June 4-Oct. 15), a number than catapults “Sex” to No. 2 in the time period 83% of the time, ahead of the shows on CBS, NBC and Fox. (No. 1 is ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”) And when Nielsen lumps together the four weekly plays of each “Sex” half-hour, an average of 7.9 million households watches the series each week, adding up to a 24.6 rating in HBO homes, making “Sex” the highest-rated sitcom on cable since HBO’s “Dream On” back in 1994.

n The winning cable bidder will get “Sex” much earlier in the process than cable usually gets a rerun sitcom, so the original episodes will still be running on HBO in the 2002-03 season, generating cross-promotion that could benefit both networks. By contrast, TBS is biting its nails waiting for “Seinfeld,” which started its first –exclusive — rerun cycle in syndication way back in the fall of 1995 and won’t get to TBS until 2002. What’s worse, the cable deal is nonexclusive: TBS will have to share “Seinfeld” with TV stations in every market in the country starting in 2002.

n HBO gets into the homes of about 29 million subscribers, so a series coming off the network has not suffered from the overexposure of a sitcom that begins life on one of the Big Four broadcast networks, which reach 100 million homes, or mass-circulation basic-cable nets, which average 75 million.

Too sexy for basic?

Despite these advantages, HBO will face some resistance from cable-network buyers who may hesitate to schedule a series focusing on four attractive career women who spend most of their waking hours figuring out how to get laid.

HBO has shot cover footage for the extensive nudity and the four-letter words, but many of the episodes are so suffused with boundary-stretching sexual themes that advertisers may shrivel up at the prospect of associating their brand with such a program.

One cable-net exec said it wasn’t so much the sex as the scissoring that the editors would have to do to pare a 28-minute episode down to 22 minutes to accommodate basic cable’s 30-second commercials. (HBO accepts no outside advertising.) “Sex” is so tightly edited for HBO that crucial storylines could get truncated in the cutting, causing viewers to scratch their heads in confusion.

Weekend escapade

HBO also plans to reserve the right to sell a weekend play of “Sex” to TV stations in rerun syndication simultaneous with its five-a-week exposure on basic cable — a nonexclusive arrangement that may not sit well with cable buyers. Sources say HBO has backed away from the idea of selling the five-a-week “Sex” package in syndication because TV stations would be willing to play it only after 11 p.m., where the license fees would come out to only a fraction of what a distributor can chalk up for a sitcom that runs between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Finally, if the cable marketplace is not ready to pay what HBO thinks “Sex” is worth, one insider says the network will cross the show off basic-cable’s shopping list, keeping the reruns in house by funneling them to HBO’s multiplex channels.