‘Ripley’s’ Forging Cable-to-Syndie Path

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

By the end of the first season of Sony Pictures TV’s “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” revival on TBS Superstation four years ago, the show’s executive producer, Dan Jbara, was “just happy” to have made it through the initial order.
“We never thought about syndication,” he said.
Sony, however, had other plans.
“When we launched `Ripley’s,’ it was 100 percent in our mind that this show was headed for syndication,” John Weiser, executive VP of Sony Pictures Television, said. That’s despite the fact that at the time of the launch four years ago, TBS executives had just decided to start airing original programs on their network and there was no real precedent for the syndication of basic cable series.
MTV and its syndication partner, October Moon, started paving the way for basic-cable series to move into syndication when they launched repeats of cable hits “The Real World” and “Road Rules.” “The Real World” launched on stations in fall 2000 and ran for two seasons. “Road Rules” debuted in fall 2002.
“Before we took `The Real World’ into syndication, the conventional wisdom was that no one would be interested in a basic-cable program,” October Moon’s Chuck Larsen said.
“We altered some misconceptions.”
“Ripley’s” developed a strong ratings story on TBS, which Sony was able to use in its sales pitch to stations. Mr. Weiser said “Ripley’s” is TBS’s top-rated show in the history of the time period among adults 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, and when encore presentations of the show aired on The WB during its 7 p.m. time period on Sundays, it was that network’s No. 1 program in that time period ever in those same demos.
Sony has cleared “Ripley’s” in more than 90 percent of the country, and 95 percent of those stations are double-running the program.
During each half-hour episode, Sony is offering the stations four minutes of barter advertising time and keeping three minutes to sell nationally. Most shows would be offered on an even barter split, Mr. Weiser said.
In syndication, the show will play as a half-hour strip, with each episode comprising the best segments from the hour-long episodes that air on TBS. Mr. Jbara said the five-minute segments within the episodes are self-contained “mini-movies.”
“Each individual story has its own beginning, middle and end,” Zack Van Amburg, Sony Television’s senior VP for development and programming, said.
Mr. Weiser said one of the advantages of selling shorter episodes is that he is able to cull more of them.
“We went to stations with 150 episodes,” he said. “You don’t see that in syndication. And with half-hours, stations have more of an opportunity to sell more spots at a greater premium.” Generally, a show is launched into syndication with 100 episodes under its belt. Half-hours are appealing because advertisers like to buy one spot in a show, whether it’s an hour or a half-hour long. Since “Ripley’s” is a half-hour show, an advertiser can buy one spot each half-hour, rather than just one spot an hour-so the stations have the opportunity to sell two spots instead of one. What’s more, since fewer spots are available in the half-hour, the demand can drive up their price.
Sony said “Ripley’s” marks just the beginning of its plans to pioneer the off-cable marketplace.
Mr. Weiser said the company plans to move the one-hour Lifetime drama “Strong Medicine” into syndication in 2004 and aims to bring FX’s award-winning drama “The Shield” to market in two or three years.
With the apparent proliferation of off-cable programming going into syndication, the question becomes whether cable networks will follow the path taken by their broadcast brethren, by seeking an ownership stake in series they air.
Mr. Larsen said yes.
“Once everyone gets over the misconception that cable series do not have an afterlife, cable networks will seek an ownership interest in series,” he said.
At this stage “TBS is not set up to own and produce original programming. As we move to produce more original shows, taking partial ownership in a series may be a viable alternative,” Christy Kreisberg, VP of original series for TBS, said.
In today’s business climate TBS does not maintain an ownership interest in “Ripley’s” and had no say as to whether the series would move into syndication.
Still, Mr. Van Amburg said TBS likely will benefit from the syndication run.