‘Sex’ Has Basic Cable Instincts

Sep 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

With the first group syndication sale of “Sex and the City” now out of the way, thanks to Tribune, HBO is on the verge of completing a deal for TBS to start airing runs of “Sex and the City” in the spring.
Such a deal with TBS could mark the first time reruns of a major sitcom would debut on a cable outlet before being made available to local broadcasters. The Tribune deal calls for the stations to air the show starting September 2005.
Sources said a deal is on the table for TBS to air the popular HBO comedy as early as May 2004, giving the cable network a full 15-month exclusive window before the series hits broadcast syndication. In addition, TBS’s claim on the series would be for a nine-year window. Dollar amounts are still being discussed.
Earlier in the year, HBO tested network interest in the Emmy-award-winning series, demanding $3 million per episode, only to find little action in the marketplace. The off-cable sales will pull in significantly less than the original asking price, insiders speculated, likely totaling $1.5 million an episode when all the deals are completed, pulling the overall take to around $150 million for the series.
Dick Robertson, Warner’s syndication president, would not elaborate on dollar figures; he put the deal on par with the blockbuster figures earned by off-net staples.
“It’s a huge deal similar to `Seinfeld’ and `Friends,”’ Mr. Robertson said.
Recent years have seen the syndication windows between broadcast and cable outlets grow closer, though local broadcast stations have generally held on to the first crack on network series. Repeats of drama series such as “CSI” have been previewed on cable before starting weekly broadcast syndication runs and have aired concurrently on broadcast stations and cable networks. Off-network comedies have traditionally aired in sitcom blocks on local broadcast stations for several seasons before the series get exposure on cable. At least one comedy series that hasn’t fit easily into the traditional blocks, hour-long “Ally McBeal,” has gone straight to cable with no broadcast window.
“We all knew it would happen one day,” said one analyst. “Since HBO and Turner are both owned by the same company, it just makes sense in this case to go ahead and do it. Trust me, this kind of deal will happen again and probably sooner than you think.”
Executives at Warner Brothers Domestic Television Distribution, which is distributing the show for HBO, said they hope an announcement will come in the next several weeks as all parties involved fine-tune the cable deal. However, sources at TBS said the cable player is mulling the ramifications of “Sex and the City’s” run on Tribune’s WGN Superstation, carried by many cable and satellite operators, before signing off, and other options are being discussed.
For now, HBO and Scott Carlin, president of domestic television distribution for the company, can gloat knowing they and WBDTD have forged the richest deal in the history of off-cable distribution by selling reruns of “Sex and the City” to the 26 Tribune-owned TV stations for a combination of cash license fees and advertising time. That puts the show’s clearance level at 35 percent of the country as part of a four-year license term. The deal was cash-plus-barter, with HBO holding back three 30-second spots for every half-hour.
“Tribune owns the kinds of programs that this show will work best with,” said Dick Robertson, president of WBDTD. “From `Friends’ to `Will & Grace’ to `Everybody Loves Raymond,’ all are programs that show this kind of sensibility, and that’s why Tribune was our top choice from the beginning.”
That sentiment was echoed by Tribune, which stressed programming flow as a driving force behind the sale.
“`Sex and the City’ has been one of the strongest half-hour comedies on television, and it is easily the best new comedy coming into the syndication marketplace,” said Pat Mullen, president of Tribune Broadcasting. “Our strategy is to acquire the best sitcoms for our local stations, and we have a long and successful track record, including `Friends,’ `Will & Grace’ and `Everybody Loves Raymond.’ `Sex and the City’ makes the daily access and late-fringe programming at our 26 television stations across the country even stronger.”