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Cable reruns ramp up

With plenty of airtime available, syndie crossover makes perfect sense

Cable reruns are going to be all over the place at NATPE.

Two of the most visible cable half-hours — Warner Bros.’ “Sex and the City” and Debmar ‘s “South Park” — have already cleared a good percentage of the U.S. for their premiere in syndication this fall.

A third half-hour, the long-running Oxygen Media series “Girls Behaving Badly,” will be featured at the Sony Pictures TV booth, 71 episodes ready and waiting for pickup by stations. “Badly” is a “Candid Camera”-inspired reality comedy in which four young women unleash pranks on unsuspecting people.

Chuck Larsen, the veteran syndicator who runs his October Moon outfit, says the cable-to-syndication marketplace has heated up dramatically since he helped to pioneer the trend three years ago with the release of MTV’s “Real World” into off-cable syndication.

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“TV stations are going to have a number of open time periods next fall,” Larsen says, “and they’ve got to get product from somewhere.” He says that the development slate of fresh five-a-week shows on the drawing boards of TV syndicators is the thinnest in many years, forcing stations to look elsewhere for replacement series.

And replacements will be needed, says Bob Cohen, a longtime distributor who’s chief operating officer of August Media. He says syndicators are getting gun-shy about new series development because “the economics of firstrun syndication don’t make any sense.”

Pinkslips in store

Cohen sees a 2004-05 track record that would drive any red-blooded TV distributor into cardiac arrest: Six of the eight rookie firstrun strips that started in syndication last September may get served with a pink slip because not enough people watched them. (The two exception are Paramount’s showbiz magazine “The Insider” and Buena Vista’s “The Tony Danza Show.”)

While all of those canceled shows will lose millions of dollars for their feckless distribs, Cohen says, the off-cable series such as “Sex and the City,” “South Park” and “Badly” don’t have to become big hits in syndication: They’ve already recouped most or all of their production costs from multiple runs over many years on cable.

But Matt Shapiro, CEO of Silver Plume Prods. and former VP of programming for the MMT rep firm, says “Sex and the City” and “South Park” are likely to do OK in syndication.

“They’re well-known brands,” he says. “People know them and will be willing to watch them, even in repeats.”

But it may not be only cable reruns that capture the fancy of TV stations.

Shapiro says the Sci Fi Channel created a latenight hit in 2000 with “Crossing Over With John Edward,” which emboldened Sci Fi’s parent Universal to shift it into first-run syndication in September 2001 where, as a daytime strip, it elbowed out Sci Fi for the first play of new episodes.

Universal got two profitable years out of “Crossing Over” before viewers got tired of the I-schmooze-with-dead-people gimmick.

Although there are no shows now on cable that are angling to make the leap into firstrun TV syndication, Shapiro says the trend is inevitable “because of all the cross-ownership of media companies.”

Disney, Viacom, NBC Universal and News Corp. each own the requisite combination of cable networks, TV stations, distribution operations and production factories. (Time Warner is missing the TV stations.)

Egged on by their mega-conglom parents, Shapiro says cable networks could soon become laboratories for shows that, once they find an audience, gravitate to the more-lucrative groves of TV syndication — where a franchise such as “Oprah” or “E.T.” can harvest hundreds of millions of dollars.

Weekend warriors

Another potentially thriving business for producers of cable series is weekend syndication.

The two key shows in the running for slots on TV station schedules in the fall are MGM ‘s “Stargate: Atlantis” (off Sci Fi Channel) and Debmar’s “Farscape” (also off Sci Fi).

Ira Bernstein, head of Mercury Entertainment and a partner of Mort Marcus’ Debmar, says TV stations will have to seek out cable product for weekend rerun programming because the broadcast networks — in thrall to reality series — are commissioning fewer drama and action hours.

September will be a particularly opportune time for weekend cable shows to bulldoze their way onto TV stations, Bernstein says, because the biggest supplier of action shows — Tribune (“Andromeda,” “Mutant X”) — has no new programs in the hopper, and Twentieth TV is pulling three shows out of weekend syndication after the 2004-05 cycle: “Buffy,” “Angel” and “The X-Files.”

“Cable networks are starting to spend real money on their scripted shows,” says Bernstein.

“Monk,” “The Dead Zone” and “The 4400” on USA and “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me” on FX are some of the series that could end up in off-cable weekend syndication in a few years.