‘Bernie,’ ‘Sex’ Ready to Deal

May 12, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Twentieth Television was close to an off-network deal for Bernie Mac on the Fox Television Stations, and HBO has signed Warner Bros. to distribute Sex and the City in off-cable syndication.
The runs for both shows are expected to start in 2005, which analysts said is likely to kick off the last great season for off-net sitcoms in broadcast syndication. Beyond these shows, and perhaps Buena Vista’s My Wife and Kids and Twentieth’s Reba, the pipeline of potential high-end off-net sitcoms appears dry to many insiders.
Analysts say prime-time reality series, which have gobbled up many of the important time periods in which sitcoms traditionally have launched, and growing interest among basic cable players in the off-net game have contributed to the scarcity of good comedies to fill the lucrative prime access comedy blocks many stations rely upon. As the rules of supply and demand kick in, bidding for the available off-net comedies is expected to heat up, and the types of deals that are made are likely to change.
The Fox stations, for example, are not Bernie’s only suitors. Viacom and Sinclair stations also have been nibbling for the rights A spokesperson for Twentieth declined to comment on any Bernie Mac deals.
What’s more, the words “strip” and “Sex” are bringing images of dollar signs to executives at Warner Bros. Executives confirmed that HBO has entered into an agreement with the syndication distributor to carry off-cable episodes of Sex and the City as early as the 2004-05 season but more likely for 2005-06. While networks didn’t take the bait to air the popular pay-cable series, stations are being approached for off-cable rights with prices rumored to be as much as 40 percent higher than those of Will & Grace.
Station insiders said they are being approached to air the toned-down version of the series in access, five nights a week. Around 90 episodes would be ready to air by the time Sex and the City finishes its run on HBO next winter. The cable channel originally asked networks for nearly $3 million an episode.
Representatives of Warner Bros. and HBO would not comment on the move to syndication.
Meanwhile, Buena Vista’s My Wife and Kids has already been sold in 28 markets incorporating more than 45 percent of the country, including many key Tribune stations.
My Wife and Kids and Bernie Mac are both A-players. After that that only potential A-player would be Eight Simple Rules in 2007,” said Bill Carroll, senior VP of group programming at Katz. “As you go down the pipeline, when you get to 2006, as it stands now there is yet to be any show that would grade higher than a B or B+.”
Although series such as Scrubs and According to Jim could still be players for the 2006 season, shrinking exclusivity windows for stations and diminishing ratings for sitcoms leave fall 2005 as a watershed year for off-net and off-cable strips.
“With all the distribution platforms available, I think it’s safe to say that 2005 will be known as the last great year for sitcoms in this business era,” said one agent close to series negotiations. “After that, broadcast windows are going to grow smaller as cable players get more aggressive, and the way sitcoms will be handled will be much different than what you see now.”
According to Mr. Carroll, it’s possible that, as with dramas, concurrent windows could be a standard down the road for sitcoms.
“Not a lot of sitcoms are going to last four to five years for networks. Because of this you have to be concerned if you’re in the sitcom business because there may not be any more A- or B-players for much longer,” Mr. Carroll said. “With cable becoming more and more of a driving force behind off-net deals, those series that survive are already starting negotiations with a three-year broadcast-only window. It won’t be too far down the line that it may become two years or even concurrent. It should be interesting to see how syndicators handle that.”