Twentieth TV hits ‘Mother’ lode

Comedy draws $350 million from stations

One of the most spirited auctions in the past couple of years has turned Twentieth TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” into a potential nonstop revenue machine, whose reruns are poised to harvest upward of $350 million in its first cycle.

At least three station groups — Tribune, Fox and CBS — have ponied up bids in some or all of the first seven cities opened by the distributor: N.Y., L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Washington. Twentieth could disclose the identity of the winning bidders in the various cities as early as Wednesday.

In cable, the bidders include TBS, Lifetime, ABC Family, FX, Comedy Central and Spike. The cable deal will take longer to close because it encompasses two separate exposures of the series. The first is the standard 12 runs a week that kicks off in fall 2010, when cable will share the plays with TV stations. The second comprises two extra runs each week in advance of fall 2010, a repurposing that’s not available in syndication and that could start on cable before the year is out.

Twentieth TV declined to comment on the negotiations, but Chuck Larsen, the producers’ rep on “Mother,” while not discussing any financial details, said: “I’m really impressed that potential buyers are being so aggressive in bidding for the show.”

One of the reasons for the elevated demand is that “Mother” has consistently averaged more than 9 million viewers in CBS’ Monday-night sitcom block since the comedy premiered in September 2005.

Even more significantly, while the show’s total-viewer number has declined slightly each year, in the 2007-08 season, “Mother” has, on average, added 450,000 people in 18-to-49, the demo most sought after by Madison Avenue.

Another reason for the booming sellers market for “Mother” is that “there are so few sitcom reruns coming down the pike,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, which represents hundreds of TV stations. Broadcast networks have cut back drastically on sitcoms, filling their primetime schedules with lots more reality series, which are cheaper to produce, and a continuing steady stream of hour dramas.

Whatever the reason for the ascendancy of “Mother,” Twentieth could end up pocketing $2 million an episode from syndication through 1) cash license fees from stations, and 2) revenues from the three 30-second national spots the distrib is holding back in each half-hour run of the series.

Similarly, an additional $1 million an episode could flow into Twentieth’s coffers from the cable-network license fee and from the value of the three 30-second spots in cable.

The four-year contract calls for the delivery to the buyers of 110 half-hours in 2010. For each additional year that CBS renews the show beyond 2010, an extra year gets tacked on to the contract.

In TV syndication, “Mother” has leapfrogged over another Twentieth off-network sitcom, “My Name Is Earl,” which is available to stations in fall 2009, a year earlier than “Mother.” The distrib has sold “Earl” to TBS for cable exclusivity, but has not cleared any TV stations yet.

In effect, the buzz over “Mother” has forced Twentieth to shove “Earl” into the backseat.