Sep 8, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Can Kenny, Cartman, Kyle and Stan hack it in the playground that is broadcast television?

Comedy Central is betting that the smart-alecky tykes from its hit series “South Park” can do in the broadcast arena what the series has done for Comedy Central.

Last week, the network announced an agreement with a company led by former Buena Vista Television President Mort Marcus for the broadcast syndication rights to the series.

“This show is still doing big numbers” for Comedy Central after six seasons, said Larry Divney, Comedy Central’s president and CEO. “We settled in and decided it was time to take it out [to broadcasters]. There is a market for it. How big a market? We’ll see.”

Mr. Divney estimated the reruns of “South Park” could generate between $50 million and $100 million in license fees and ad revenue during the first four years of syndication. However, some syndication experts are raising questions about whether the animated series, with its ribald humor and occasionally profane language, can be reined in enough to satisfy local station owners, who might have trouble selling to local advertisers who might take a dim view of the show’s content.

“From afar, this is a good idea because the series is fun, new, exciting and different,” one veteran television syndication executive said. “And I know that TV is pushing it to the edge these days. But there are themes on this that I just don’t know if local advertisers will support.”

Comedy Central’s agreement to syndicate “South Park” culminates years of discussions back and forth over the merits of syndicating the cable channel’s most successful series. Network executives weighed an opportunity to create another revenue stream for their hit series against the desire of series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to protect the “South Park” brand.

Under the terms of the pact with Mr. Marcus, his company, Debmar Studios, will make available to stations starting in the fall of 2004 more than 100 episodes of the series. It is still to be determined if the deals will be cash, barter or some combination. “South Park” original episodes will continue to air on Comedy Central, where the show has been renewed at least through 2005.

Mr. Marcus, who left The Walt Disney Co.’s Buena Vista in November 1999, believes many stations will jump at the chance to broadcast “South Park,” which is Comedy Central’s highest-rated show and a series that attracts a heavily young male demographic.

“I made an offer to acquire the rights to this show when I was president of Buena Vista Television, and it had been on the air for only six or seven weeks [back in 1997],” said Mr. Marcus, adding that agreement couldn’t be reached at the time. “This may be the funniest show on TV, and if it’s aired at 11 at night, it can get men 18 to34 that stations want badly.”

Why would Comedy Central, which is now part of Viacom, turn to a small independent distributor? Mr. Divney said he first discussed syndicating “South Park” with sister companies Paramount and King World, but in both cases found only tepid interest at best. He said it was important to him to find someone with a passion for the show, which is something he shares with Mr. Marcus.

Making the Cut

Both Mr. Marcus and Mr. Divney acknowledged there are a handful of episodes that won’t make the cut into syndication (an example is the episode that earned a world record for the number of times a four-letter expletive is uttered), but neither expressed worry that simple edits couldn’t do the trick. Further, neither has any illusions about the fact that the show’s most appropriate time slot is after 11 p.m.

“For the most part, a little language loop will take care of it,” said Mr. Marcus, who adds the task is made easier by the fact that “South Park” is animated. He also noted: “Today, in 2003, `South Park’ is not that far out there.”

Indeed, the series could benefit from being one of the few sitcoms available in the near future.

“What may help Comedy Central is that there is a dearth of available product in the next couple of years,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at Katz Media. “The problem they are going to face is that it is difficult to translate success on a targeted cable network to broadcast,” a challenge HBO and its sister company, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, also face as they explore syndicating “Sex and the City.”