TBS locks up early window for ‘Earl’

Net nabs show ahead of its station premieres

TBS, a brass-knuckles competitor to TV stations for sitcom rights, has just gotten stronger, signing a deal with Twentieth TV for an exclusive window to “My Name Is Earl” 18 months before it becomes available to stations in off-network syndication.

“This is the fourth recent comedy series we’ve bought ahead of their station premieres,” said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment, referring to Warner Bros.’ “Sex and the City,” Debmar TV’s “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” and NBC Universal’s “The Office.”

With “My Name Is Earl,” Bob Cook, president and CEO of Twentieth TV, said his goal is to convince TV stations that these pre-syndication runs on TBS will not have damaged the value of the series by the time it starts its run in off-network syndication during the fall of 2009.

Far from hurting the “Earl” half-hours, Cook said these TBS plays “will heighten viewer awareness of the show and act as cross-promotion” for the syndication run. Twentieth has pitched “Earl” to the Fox and Tribune station groups since June, when TBS signed its first deal. Fox and Tribune tend to lead the marketplace for sitcoms because they buy just about all of them in the major markets.

But Cook acknowledged that stations are waiting to see the ratings of reruns of Warner Bros.’ “Two and a Half Men” and Twentieth’s “Family Guy,” each of which kicked off in syndication Sept. 10. “It may take until November for us to get a feel of the marketplace,” he said. “We’ll have to wait until the full weight of the promotional campaigns kick in for ‘Two and a Half Men’ and ‘Family Guy,’ and daylight saving time ends” on Nov. 4.

Meanwhile, TBS is perched in the catbird seat, regularly trumping its TV-station rivals. “Sex and the City,” for example, has proved a steady Nielsen performer, particularly among young women, since TBS premiered it in primetime exclusively for 15 months, from summer 2004 to fall 2005 (when the stations started sharing it).

The two back-to-back original half-hours of “House of Payne” have averaged a strapping 3 million viewers on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. since they began on TBS earlier this summer. TV stations get “Payne” in fall 2008.

Reruns of “The Office,” which kicked off on TBS Sept. 11 in a double primetime run every Tuesday, are averaging 1.878 million total viewers for the first two weeks, which is 68% above TBS’ primetime average for September and 57% above the year-ago time period. An unusually potent 80% of these “Office” viewers are 18-to-49-year-olds, which are catnip to advertisers.

TBS plans to premiere “My Name Is Earl” twice a week in primetime, beginning April 1, drawing on episodes from earlier seasons. In the fall of 2009, these runs will be folded into the daily plays of “Earl,” which TBS will share with the TV stations. The parties declined to discuss the additional license fee TBS will pony up for the pre-syndication runs, but the network forked over about $625,000 an episode for “Earl” in the original deal.

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