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‘Office’ swings into syndication

Show survives rough start to lead NBC's comedy charge

It’s hard to believe now, but NBC’s “The Office” almost didn’t make it to season two.

Now the centerpiece of the Peacock’s Thursday night lineup, “The Office” struggled to find an audience — and avoid the ax — in its first year.

“We were counted out before we began,” says exec producer Greg Daniels, who adapted the British hit for U.S. auds. “There were a lot of questions over whether we could produce something with this tone.”

No one’s questioning it anymore, particularly now that “The Office” has made it to the lucrative world of off-net syndication. “The Office” debuted last week as a strip on stations, including Fox-owned outlets in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The show is also helping NBC build a new stable of comedies: It provided a strong lead-in for “30 Rock” for two years and this fall also gave a boost to new laffer “Community,” which bowed to solid numbers a couple of weeks ago.

“The Office” has never been a monster performer for the broadcast network (it fares best in the 18-49 demo), but it has become a juggernaut for corporate parent NBC Universal. 

As a matter of fact, it’s the biggest franchise to come out of the conglom since NBC and Universal first merged in 2004. Between DVD, international sales and now off-net (which garnered more than $3 million per episode for NBC U), “The Office” has easily netted hundreds of millions of dollars for the Peacock.

“It’s a major asset,” says Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic TV. “I don’t think there’s anything close to it.”

“The Office” reps one of the first shows to truly take advantage of TV’s new digital age. The laffer already transcends platforms, striking it big on iTunes, via streaming, on DVD and through heavy DVR usage. 

“It’s a comedy of the new age,” says exec producer Ben Silverman, who brought the U.K. laffer to the States as the former head of Reveille. “When we developed it, we saw a lot of opportunities for the show. The humor had some short-form elements to it that gave the opportunity to create a lot of additional content. We did the first webisodes, and did early integration and a number of merchandising deals early on.”

But first, the show had to work, and given the spotty track record of U.K. adaptations in the U.S. (as well as inevitable, difficult comparisons with the critically acclaimed Ricky Gervais original), there was no guarantee.

Daniels says he even had some initial concerns about bringing the show to NBC.

“This was very different than your normal network show, and NBC was coming off a lot of multicamera successes like ‘Will and Grace,’ ” he says. “I kept thinking it should be on HBO or something. But (then-NBC Entertainment prexy) Kevin Reilly really wanted it, and Ben Silverman felt like, ‘Let’s go for NBC.’ And then the British ‘Office’ came out on BBC America, and I thought, well, if the British show is already on cable, then I might as well go for the network.”

Daniels says he thought the show might also nudge network comedy in a different direction. He rewrote some of the British ‘Office’ pilot but kept much of the plot — as insurance to prevent NBC from making too many changes.

“If I left it in, then I could tell them, ‘well, you bought the show,’ ” Daniels recalls.

“The Office’s” initial six episodes, which ran in spring 2005, earned early critical raves, but were a ratings bust. Reilly set out to save the show, however, and the producers found a way to make a renewal work, but at a cost.

“We were asked to reduce the budget dramatically,” Silverman remembers. “And we were asked to hit a low number to get back on the air. It took risk to keep it going.”

Daniels, meanwhile, began mapping out how to sustain the show beyond the first few episodes (the U.K. ‘Office,’ after all, produced only 12 episodes total, plus a special).

“Once we realized we could go to 100 episodes, we started to ask ourselves, what do we do to go that far?” Daniels says. “You have to care about the characters more, for starters.”

That included deepening the Michael Scott character, played by Steve Carell, and broadening the backstories of other characters. And then there was the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer).

But even before the second season’s launch, buzz was starting to build for the show, thanks to strong reviews and then the 2005 release of star Carell’s breakout feature “The 40 Year-Old Virgin.”

At the same time, the show began to hit its creative stride, with episodes like “The Dundies,” “Sexual Harrassment” and “Office Olympics.” Later, “The Office” launched on iTunes, opening the show up to a whole new batch of fans and quickly becoming the No. 1 downloaded program for several weeks.

“The audience for the show was very young and tech savvy and affluent,” Daniels says. “And all these Internet ways of watching became embraced by the audience.”

The consumer products rushed in after that, starting with bobbleheads based on “The Office’s” resident eccentric, Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), as well as Hallmark cards, board games, clothing, stationary and mobile games.

“The Office” has grown its ratings among adults 18-49 every year since its launch, going from a 2.5 rating in the 2004-05 season to a 4.9 rating last year. The show was the No. 2 comedy in the demo last year, behind only “Two and a Half Men.”

“Obviously it’s been the linchpin of NBC’s Thursday schedule, and it brought us back to the classic NBC model of successful sitcoms on the night,” Wallach says.

Meanwhile, the show’s syndication run was cleared in 98% of the country; a five-night-a-week strip is also set for TBS (where repeats had already been airing once a week since 2007).

“When you look at sitcoms, the ones with slow builds have always been very good for the back end,” Wallach says. “Those early episodes weren’t seen as much. People who became fans later want to go back and see those old episodes. And it sold very well (in syndication), ultimately being slotted in some of the best time periods. … And projecting out another couple of years, this is a show that could get to 150 episodes quite easily.”

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