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The downward spiral of syndication

Big Four networks cool on theatrical films

It was a sobering sign of the times: Eric Frankel was let go by Warner Bros. last week after more than two decades as one of the highest-visibility execs selling movies and TV series to the cable nets.

Warners ended up folding his division into the overall TV-syndication operation.

But the studio was largely bowing to hard marketplace realities.

First, the Big Four broadcast nets have basically stopped buying theatrical movies for their primetime schedules because the pictures don’t draw enough viewers anymore.

Basic-cable nets still buy movies because their Nielsen bar is not as high as the broadcasters’. But the days when a studio could generate license fees of 15% of domestic box office gross of a title are gone. FX recently bought three theatrical winners from 20th Century Fox — “The Simpsons Movie,” “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer” — for only about 11% of U.S. box office.

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The falloff in license fees has also spread to hourlong TV series. In 2004, TNT paid Frankel a strapping $1.4 million an episode for “Cold Case” reruns, a typical price at the time for a hit network series. Now, reruns of successful network series like CBS Paramount’s “Criminal Minds” and Twentieth TV’s “Boston Legal” are going begging because “Cold Case” proved disappointing in its cable runs.

Frankel, as prexy of domestic-cable distribution, fell victim to these negative trends.

Bruce Rosenblum, president of the Warner Bros. TV Group, captured the mood when he said in a statement that keeping a separate division for cable was “neither financially prudent nor strategically smart.”