×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Syndie’s sitcom slump socks stations

Viewers abandon long-running comedies

Comedy in TV syndication continues to be anything but a laughing matter.

Gloom replaces good cheer when the industry ponders the accelerated ratings erosion of three bellwether off-net sitcom reruns of the past five years — a situation assuaged only some by the emergence of “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” a popular new cable comedy that will enter the syndie cycle in fall 2008.

The three long-running sitcoms — “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends” — are crucial to the health of TV stations with sitcom blocks because these shows can serve as high-rated lead-ins to lesser comedies in blocks scheduled between 6 and 8 p.m.

Not only are viewers deserting the aging hit comedies but TV stations may have to contend with a powerful new player in the marketplace, TBS, which owns exclusive rights to “House of Payne” for the next 15 months.

But the immediate problem for the stations is the hemorrhaging of viewers. According to Nielsen, “Friends” fell off by 27% in household ratings this past season (September-May), and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Seinfeld” each dropped by 18%. (Reruns of “The Simpsons” draw sizable audiences in syndication, but Twentieth TV, the distrib, gets no national-advertising time in the episodes, so the industry doesn’t track its ratings.)

“When perennial sitcoms like these start to show double-digit declines, TV stations have a right to be concerned,” says Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz TV, which represents hundreds of stations. Some of the “Seinfeld” slippage comes from a technicality in barter advertising on TBS, says the show’s distrib Sony Pictures TV.

But no matter how you slice it, “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Raymond” are “so far down from where they were a few years ago,” says Garnett Losak, VP of programming for Petry TV, another station-rep firm.

“Friends” has lost almost half its audience in the past five years, plummeting from a 7.0 household rating in 2002-03 (when originals were going strong on NBC) to a 3.6 this season. During the same period, “Seinfeld” fell from a 6.9 rating to a 4.5. The five-year slippage of “Raymond” is not as dizzying (6.2 to 5.1), as the series shot up by 24% in the 2004-05 season when TBS started airing it.

At the opposite end of Nielsen’s spreadsheets, “House of Payne” made a big debut June 6 on TBS. Back-to-back segs averaged 5.5 million viewers, making it the highest-rated sitcom in the history of ad-supported cable (though it fell to a still-strong 3.1 million in week two).

TBS skeds only two half-hours of “Payne” each week. Stations won’t get access to it until September 2008 because they want to start running the episodes five times a week, and Perry will not complete 100 half-hours for another year.

The success of “Payne” has reinforced the growing strength of TBS — whose logo highlights the words “very funny” — as a potential competitor to TV stations for the rights to the latest off-network comedies. TBS is also aggressively producing its own original sitcoms such as “My Boys,” “10 Items or Less” and the forthcoming “Bill Engvall Show.” “Boys” and “10 Items” each earned second-season renewals.

TBS boasts that it has beaten TVstations to the punch not only with “Payne” but with two other syndie laffers: “Family Guy,” whose reruns have played on both TBS and its Adult Swim sib, and “Sex and the City.”

The rise of TBS is not lost on NBC Universal, which is maneuvering to pre-sell reruns of “The Office” in syndication for fall 2009. Under the traditional pattern, NBC U would sell the show to TV stations market by market (starting with either the Fox or Tribune group) for a three-year exclusive window. In year four, a cable network — usually TBS for sitcoms — would buy a five- or six-year license term to that sitcom. Contracts would overlap, so the comedy would run simultaneously on cable and broadcast TV.

But that pattern may be headed for the scrap heap: TBS is talking to NBC U about stepping up and buying “The Office” to run day/date with TV stations, which would be a first for a high-visibility off-network comedy.

“The Office” draws food demos on NBC, but is not a broad draw. As Magna Global’s Steve Sternberg puts it, “While more edgy comedies might attract a small, upscale audience, most viewers are looking for comfort food” when they seek out a sitcom.

If you want comfort, Warner Bros. has “Two and a Half Men,” which starts its syndie run this fall. “Stations are hoping it can breathe life into their aging sitcom blocks,” says Losak.

Warners did its “Men” deal last summer: three years exclusive to stations, followed by a shared window in cable with FX (which, surprisingly, outbid TBS).

Judging by the scarcity of A-list half-hours on the broadcast-network schedules, “Men” may end up as the last of the big-bucks sitcoms. An estimated $4 million an episode could flow into Warners’ coffers based on license fees from stations ($1.8 million a half-hour), fees from FX ($700,000 per seg) and advertising revenue from the three 30-second spots in each syndie run throughout the first cycle (another $1 million to $1.5 million per, depending on the ratings and the health of the advertising marketplace).

More TV

  • 'Power' Shuts Down Production After Crew

    'Power' Shuts Down Production After Crew Member Killed

    The Starz series “Power” has shut down production after an on-set accident led to the death of a production assistant early Monday morning. Pedro Jimenez, 63, was setting up traffic cones for a shoot in Brooklyn at approximately 4:20 AM ET when he was struck by a 2006 Ford Explorer, with the driver remaining at [...]

  • Fyre Festival

    Netflix to Release Fyre Festival Documentary Next Month, Debuts Trailer

    The Fyre Festival is a gift that keeps on giving for video streaming services, as Netflix today announced a documentary about the disastrous 2017 festival, which collapsed before it even started and landed its organizer, Billy McFarland, a six-year prison sentence. “Fyre” will be directed by Chris Smith, who helmed last year’s documentary “Jim & Andy: [...]

  • Tom DeLonge

    Tom DeLonge Paranormal Series 'Strange Times' in Development at TBS (EXCLUSIVE)

    Former Blink-182 member Tom DeLonge left the hugely successful band in 2015 in part to explore other opportunities, including his interest in aliens and the paranormal. His passion resulted in the acclaimed graphic novel, “Strange Times,” which is now being turned into a series for TBS. The series, which Variety can exclusively announce is being [...]

  • Jodie Whittaker Back as 'Doctor Who'

    Jodie Whittaker to Return as 'Doctor Who' in 2020 Amid Strong U.S. Ratings

    “Doctor Who” will be back on global screens in early 2020, with Jodie Whittaker returning in her groundbreaking role as the show’s first regular female timelord. The show was renewed by the BBC amid mixed overnight but strong consolidated numbers in the U.K., and strong ratings in the U.S. British viewers tuned in in droves to [...]

  • NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 06:

    Endeavor Promotes Mark Shapiro to President

    After four years overseeing content operations at IMG, Mark Shapiro has been promoted to president of Endeavor. Shapiro’s elevation to the newly created post comes as Endeavor has expanded dramatically during the past few years, starting with its acquisition of IMG in 2014. Endeavor is now the parent company of WME, IMG, UFC and other [...]

  • Watch: First Look at Scandinavian Fantasy

    Watch the First Look at Scandinavian Fantasy Series 'Hidden' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Banijay and its Scandinavian outfit Yellow Bird (“Millennium”) have unveiled the promo of the anticipated fantasy thriller series “Hidden,” which stars Izabella Scorupco (“GoldenEye”) and August Wittgenstein (“The Crown”). Commissioned by MTG Studios, “Hidden” is based on Filip Alexanderson’s novel “Förstfödd” and takes place in modern-day Stockholm, where people living on the margins discover they [...]

  • 'Americans,' 'Versace,' 'Dannemora' Lead Critics' Choice

    'Americans,' 'Gianni Versace,' 'Escape at Dannemora' Lead Critics' Choice Awards TV Nominations

    FX’s “The Americans” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” along with Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora,” led the Broadcast Television Journalists Assn.’s nominations for the 24th annual Critics’ Choice Awards, it was revealed Monday. Joining “The Americans” in the best drama series category was “Better Call Saul” (AMC), “The Good Fight” (CBS All [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content