The cable advantage

Feb 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When “Gilmore Girls” goes into exclusive cable syndication on the ABC Family cable network in the fall of 2004, expect little or no effect on its WB network rating, but when Fox Television’s “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Yes, Dear,” now airing on Fox Broadcasting and CBS, respectively, enter the syndication wars at around the same time, expect their network ratings to drop, perhaps precipitously.
The reason for the difference in the “Girls” post-syndication first-run prospects, according to Steve Sternberg, Magna Global’s ratings guru, is that cable exposure is unlikely to duplicate broadcast viewership in the same way that prime-access broadcast exposure for the Fox and CBS shows will overlap with and thereby diminish the prime-time broadcast network audience for the series. Also, cable viewing levels are expected to be smaller.
“When we know a show’s going into syndication at the same time that it’s running on the network, we do take that into account when projecting how well shows are going to do in the fall,” said Mr. Sternberg. “We might knock it down a notch if we know that it’s going into syndication and it’s going to have primarily prime-access clearances,” he added, defining “notch” as approximately a share point.
In fact, of the latest crop of network series heading for syndication this fall and in 2004, Mr. Sternberg found only two-“The Parkers” and “Boston Public”-whose network ratings are not expected to suffer. On the other hand, shows like “Becker” and “King of Queens,” targeted for fall syndication, and “My Wife and Kids,” expected in 2005, can expect immediate network ratings declines in their first syndication seasons.
That’s partly because WB and UPN series, the comedies in particular, tend to do almost as well in repeats as they do in their original runs, Mr. Sternberg said. “A lot of people haven’t seen them to begin with, so for a show like [‘The Parkers’] going into syndication, a program that’s getting a 4 share now, [syndication] may not have any effect.” Similarly, “Boston Public,” also expected to go to cable syndication, can expect minimal impact on its network ratings. That same scenario is likely to play out in 2005 for such series as “Reba,” “Smallville” and “Bernie Mac” all of which are expected to go directly to cable syndication.
Gradual hits
Mr. Sternberg has conducted a retrospective study of the effects on network ratings of 57 prime-time series that have gone into syndication since 1987 and found that 43 series, or 75 percent, “suffered immediate network rating declines.”
In fact, of the 35 series studied that had experienced year-to-year broadcast-network ratings declines in the season before being syndicated, “all but seven (80 percent) continued to decline the year they were syndicated,” and the “majority declined at a sharper rate.”
Of the 22 network series in the period studied whose network ratings were either stable or growing in the pre-syndication season, the network ratings for fully 15 (68 percent) declined in their first syndication season. Six of the seven series that improved their performance (“Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The X-Files,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Full House” and “Beverly Hills 90210”) “were extremely low-rated during their first season, and [only] became hits later on,” Mr. Sternberg said. Accordingly, many of the network viewers hadn’t seen the first one or two seasons and so were eager to catch up in the prime-access period.
In addition to cable syndication and syndication for low-rated series that built gradually into hits, other factors that limit the negative impact of syndication on network runs include both significant late-night clearances and moving a network show into a less competitive time period, Mr. Sternberg said.
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