‘Men’ surges in syndication

Rookie sitcom vaults above vets in ratings

Talk about bragging rights: Warner Bros.’ “Two and a Half Men” has made such a ratings splash since its reruns began in September that the sitcom has vaulted above such syndie perennials as “The Simpsons,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Seinfeld.”

It’s the first time in 10 years that a frosh syndie comedy has debuted in the top spot.

And Twentieth TV’s animated comedy “Family Guy,” another September kickoff in syndication, is headed for a second-place finish behind “Two and a Half Men.” Among adults under 35, “Family Guy” actually beats “Men.” (That’s the same standing the comedies enjoyed in primetime last season, with CBS’ “Men” the top comedy in 18-49, 25-54 and total viewers, and Fox’s “Family Guy” No. 1 among viewers under 35.)

These ratings “are a throwback to what used to happen back in the ’80s and early ’90s, when a rerun sitcom would begin its syndication run and go right to the top of the pile in its first year,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, which reps hundreds of stations.

Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution, calls the first season of “Two and a Half Men” “a game-changer for stations.”

But many skeptics are taking a second look at the audience for “Two and a Half Men.” Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media Corp., another station-rep firm, says, “A big factor in the success of ‘Two and a Half Men’ is that it’s exclusive to stations in syndication. There’s no concurrent run on a cable network to draw viewers away.”

FX has bought the cable rights to “Men,” but won’t take title to the reruns until fall 2010, giving stations a three-year window of exclusivity.

Losak may be right when she implies that “Men” could go down in the syndication history books as the last of the station exclusives. The three most important sitcoms headed into the marketplace in the next two years won’t be exclusive to TV syndication. Cable and broadcast have come together for “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” from Debmar-Mercury, this September, and for the two fall ’09 comedies: NBC Universal’s “The Office” and CBS TV Distribution’s “Everybody Hates Chris.”

TBS got a 15-month jump by premiering “House of Payne” in June 2007, and will continue playing it in 2008-09 and beyond, simultaneous with TV stations.

Similarly, TBS runs “The Office” twice a week in primetime and will take lots more weekly runs when the show goes into syndication, sharing it with stations. Nick at Nite has bought shared rights to “Chris” starting in fall 2009.

Losak places the blame for the demise of station exclusivity on the Fox and the Tribune O&Os. They’re the gatekeepers because they control TV outlets in N.Y., L.A., Chicago and many other major markets.

“If those groups are not willing to pay the extra license fees for exclusivity,” she says, “then the rest of the stations have to follow along.”

While sharing sitcoms with cable has all the charm of a shotgun marriage for the stations, the distribs are gleeful at the trend. The license fee they pocket from a cable network more than makes up for the lower price paid by stations irked by the non-exclusivity.

And the cable/station sharing allows the distribs to harvest more from Madison Avenue by selling advertisers an accumulated total of the viewers tuned in to a sitcom on the TV station in each market and on the national cable network.

The distribs’ counter-argument to Losak is that “Family Guy” is doing almost as well as “Men” in syndication despite reruns also playing regularly on TBS in primetime and its Cartoon Network sibling in latenight. To the distribs, a hit show can prosper in both cable and syndication, and maybe even get a boost from the cross fertilization.

What makes distribs nervous, however, is the humongous $10.6 billion debt grinding down the Tribune Co., which could prevent its 23 TV stations, seven of them in the top 10 markets, from bidding on future sitcoms.

Twentieth TV has not clinched a station deal for “My Name Is Earl” even though TBS bought it more than a year ago and runs two episodes a week. TBS will be able to sked six or more runs a week beginning in fall 2009, when it expects to share it with stations.

The Fox-owned station group would be a natural outlet for “Earl” since its cutthroat rival Tribune had outbid Fox for “Two and a Half Men” and “Family Guy.” But the dysfunctional Tribune Co.’s stations have not stepped up, so Fox is waiting until the price falls significantly into the low six figures an episode. (TBS paid about $600,000 a half-hour for cable rights to “Earl.”)

With “Earl” at a stalemate, other distribs are holding back from introducing any sitcoms into syndication and cable right now. None of the sitcoms currently being produced for broadcast or cable networks are perceived as must-buys, a situation that’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The scarcity of sitcom hits on broadcast may be eased somewhat by cable. Stations led by Tribune got a year or two of decent ratings out of “Sex and the City,” distributed by HBO. Similarly, Debmar-Mercury lined up lots of latenight time periods for the off-Comedy Central “South Park,” which chalks up more young males than most sitcoms.

HBO has two more comedies waiting in the wings: “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Entourage.” Sony Pictures TV has “My Boys” pulling satisfactory numbers on TBS. Lionsgate is the distrib of Showtime’s solidly performing “Weeds.”

And TBS itself owns the rights to “The Bill Engvall Show.” If “Engvall” continues to pull better-than-average numbers, TBS execs will keep renewing it until there are enough episodes for rerun syndication.

Since “Engvall” is the kind of family-oriented sitcom that’s in short supply these days, TBS could create a lively marketplace for the reruns, winding up with as much as $500,000 an episode.

That figure looks small compared to the $13 million an episode (and counting) that Sony has amassed from “Seinfeld,” but for TBS it would be found money.

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