‘Friends’ looks to top ‘Seinfeld’s’ earnings

Economy, over-exposure may affect profits

When “Seinfeld” wraps its life in syndication, it will have earned a staggering $2 billion — clearly a figure not likely to be topped.

Except that Dick Robertson, with a little help from his “Friends,” is now aiming to surpass that tally.

And the Warner Bros. syndie prexy says he’s confident he’ll do it.

The first, six-year syndie cycle of “Friends,” which started in 1998, will gross nearly $1.5 billion.

Robertson is kicking off sales to stations of the second cycle — another six-year period, beginning in December 2004 — of the still-hot sitcom.

And if this latest sales effort of “Friends” matches its first round, the show could approach $3 billion, leaving “Seinfeld” in the dust.

Robertson says, with typically forceful enthusiasm, that the ensemble sitcom from Bright-Kaufman-Crane is “a huge asset for this company.”

The exec has sold more than 30 sitcoms into off-net syndication during his 12 years with the company. (For a decade before that he worked for the various incarnations of Lorimar and Telepictures, which were folded into WB TV in 1985.)

Robertson’s job won’t be easy. “Seinfeld’s” second cycle was sold three years ago, while the general economy was still buoyant. “Friends” is going out in one of the rockiest economic climates in years.

But the exec, sitting in his punctiliously appointed office in Warner’s Triangle Building in Burbank — complete with carefully positioned big-game antlers — says he’s itching to hunt down the big bucks.

He adds that the successful second-cycle sale of “Friends” is his “number one priority.”

It has to be.

As AOL Time Warner honchos scrutinize every division of the new conglom, it will be nothing short of clutch for Robertson and company to hit their goals.

Doing so will depend a lot on the attitudes of Robertson’s clients: TV stations across the country. And stations appear open to his Friendship.

“Seinfeld” is locked up for many years to come, so “Friends” could represent the last chance for stations to nab a driving, off-net sitcom hit.

Sitcom reruns are integral to many local stations, which use these road-tested shows to attract ad-friendly 18-34 and 18-49 demos, particularly during highly viewed access time periods (5 p.m. to 8 p.m.).

Aside from “Friends,” there are few hit-worthy comedies available.

Several sitcoms — “Drew Carey” and “3rd Rock From the Sun” — have recently disappointed in off-net syndication, but it’s even more frightening not to have any new ones in sight.

“It’s very scary in terms of off-net sitcoms right now,” an L.A.-based station exec says.

This can be partly blamed on studios’ and broadcast nets’ difficulties in developing laffers; meanwhile, new comedies are having trouble establishing themselves, since a lot of available time periods have been eaten up by the primetime reality boom and the proliferation of successful dramas.

As for how the syndie revs on hit shows are divvied up, profit participants vary widely from sitcom to sitcom, including not only the stars and exec producers, but also the production company, the distributor, and even a few key execs connected to the show.

In the case of “Seinfeld,” co-creator and star Jerry Seinfeld will clearly take home a sizeable chunk of the syndie payday.

When the ensemble cast of “Friends” re-negotiated their network deal last year, they were able to up their stake in the backend bonanza.

Fueling the fear of station execs is the fact that many station groups are now co-owned by studios — meaning that those who are not aligned may not get a good shot at bidding for programs that are available.

So in its “Friends” battle, Warner Bros. can play on stations’ fears that this is their last chance at a big sitcom before they dry up.

These factors also pretty much guarantee that the license fees for “Seinfeld” and “Friends” are unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future.

In its first cycle in syndication, “Seinfeld” generated well north of $600 million. But the show became a phenom when its second-cycle sale drew larger fees than its first.

Usually, by the time an offnet sitcom has completed its first cycle in syndie, ratings have dipped so much that its ad value is minimal — so it usually draws a much lower license fee.

“Seinfeld’s” $2 billion comes from the license fees paid by stations for the skein’s first and second cycles, as well as the national barter advertising it has earned.

Robertson has already cemented a few deals for the second cycle of “Friends.” He’s picking targets market-by-market across the U.S., expecting his deals to be done by mid-summer of this year.

“We think ‘Friends’ will do as well or better in its second cycle than ‘Seinfeld’ did in its second cycle,” he says. “If we sold it for the same as what we got for cycle one, we would beat ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

Not a cinch

But this is not going to be easy.

Times have changed since Sony syndie topper Steve Mosko sold “Seinfeld’s” second cycle three years ago, when he was the company’s head of sales and the general economy was still buoyant.

In addition, “Seinfeld” was in its last season on NBC by that point; “Friends” is still going strong on the Peacock, and some worry about its over-exposure.

That concern is fueled by the fact that “Friends” had two daily runs in syndie during its first cycle, as opposed to the single daily run for the Jerry Seinfeld hit.

While “Friends’ ” double-runs help account for the high first cycle take — as double-runs mean double ad inventory — detractors worry that “Friends” may overstay its welcome. (The sitcom also will have had a few years of cable exposure on the TBS Superstation before it hits its second cycle.)

But Robertson animatedly counters his detractors’ spin.

“People who say the sprockets are falling off of ‘Friends’ need to do their homework,” he says, adding that his studio’s research indicates that the show continues to be the highest-rated product in syndication among adult demos.

He adds that the fact that “Friends” has more episodes than “Seinfeld” will help counteract auds’ boredom with seeing the same old episodes.

The tally also helps account for the “Friends” fiscal advantage. “Seinfeld” had 180 episodes; by the end of the 2001-02 season, “Friends” will have approximately 195 episodes.

And Robertson should know. He’s privy to “Seinfeld’s” merits — and numbers — as well as those of “Friends.”

That’s because “Seinfeld” was produced by Castle Rock, a sister AOL Time Warner company. Interestingly, Castle Rock styled itself a film company and almost accidentally came up with “Seinfeld.” The deal with Columbia to distrib the show was made many years ago, before Castle Rock landed in the Warners corporate family.

When Sony was ready to sell the first cycle of “Seinfeld,” in spring 1994, syndie head Barry Thurston decided stations could only air one episode per day.

Many feel that this decision prevented overexposure and preserved ratings perfs.

Sony’s Mosko, Thurston’s successor, calls the second cycle sale of “Seinfeld” “the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. There are only so many Willie Mayes, Michael Jordans, Tiger Woods. You only get a couple in your lifetime.”

The double-pump trump

Mosko is giving stations a one-year-only opportunity starting this fall to double-pump “Seinfeld” in its current second cycle.

So will stations that have forked out for “Seinfeld” have enough dough to also go after “Friends”?

Says one station programmer: ” ‘Seinfeld’ cost us a mint. We can’t buy two shows that cost that much money if we have a design on making a profit.”

But Robertson says he’s by no means counting out the stations that bought “Seinfeld.”

Those stations paid for that show because they expect to make a huge profit, he says. “Why wouldn’t they want both ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’?”

Robertson also notes that, come December 2004, few other off-net sitcoms are likely to be ready to go into syndication.

The Tribune and Fox station groups are among the strongest proponents of sitcom blocks, and both have been “Seinfeld” and “Friends” rerun customers.

So their opinions will be key in determining whether “Friends” can best “Seinfeld” in this syndie face-off.

Both station groups for the moment are playing their cards close to the vest.

“What no one can afford to do now is the bad deals, not that anyone ever intends to do them,” says Frank Cicha, VP of programming for Fox Television Stations, of the off-net landscape in general right now. “The bad deals now just hurt worse then ever.”

Tribune Broadcasting programming chief Marc Schacher says he’s optimistic that the TV biz is cyclical, indicating he likely won’t be swayed by rhetoric about an upcoming sitcom dearth.

“This is not the first time I’ve heard there are no sitcoms anymore,” Schacher says.

In the early ’80s, dramas like “Magnum, P.I.” and “The Fall Guy” were stripped in syndication because good sitcoms appeared so rare.

“The sitcom was considered done,” Schacher remembers. “Then ‘Cosby’ came along.”

Latest word is that Robertson is right now pitching “Friends” in San Diego — a market where the local Tribune station is currently airing the first cycle of “Friends.”