Slim Comedy Pickings No Laughing Matter

Nov 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The fact that sitcom buyers’ attention at the upcoming National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Las Vegas is focused on the second and third syndication cycles of two established megahit shows illustrates the dearth of standout first-run comedies in play, according to several broadcasters gearing up for the January event.
Broadcasters and even syndicators, while still touting their own product, agreed there’s no comedy debuting in its first cycle likely to rival the third cycle of “Seinfeld” or the second cycle for prime-time and syndication hit “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
“`Raymond’ is the only show that’s been a breakout hit,” said Katz Media VP and station rep Bill Carroll. Mr. Carroll said that for his money, there’s not a “Friends,” “Seinfeld” or “Raymond” in the group of sitcoms soon to be offered for syndication. The half-hours on offer include “My Wife and Kids,” “Scrubs,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “According to Jim,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” even “Sex and the City,” which will have its first syndicated run on cable Superstation TBS beginning in June.
Though he jokingly downplayed his qualifications as a seer by admitting he once passed on “M*A*S*H,” the former station executive said the near future doesn’t appear to be much brighter.
“Friends” spinoff “Joey” is “at least four years away,” Mr. Carroll said, only half joking.
The recently aggressive nature of cable acquisition, once limited to evergreen television like “The Andy Griffith Show,” has naturally added to the competition for product, raising fees and reducing exclusivity while, broadcasters said, the product has diminished.
Station and syndication executives alike speak of a hierarchy in sitcom deals. An “A”-level show like “Raymond” benefits from its position as consensus syndication hit. For the few existing “A”-level shows, stations are willing to take the long-term deals offered by syndicators, often paying top dollar.
A “B”-level agreement-typically shorter term, often a barter deal-may involve shows that are particularly popular in large urban markets and often comes with a concurrent deal with a cable network. In this way, syndicators are able to mitigate their financial risk while sacrificing the possible upside of an open-ended deal in the event of a breakout hit.
Another kind of lower-tier deal is the “comedy block,” a form of barter in which the station and distributor split commercial time in lieu of a license fee.
Some station owners said they are concerned that lost exclusivity might reduce the value of their product. Twentieth Television Executive VP and General Sales Manager Paul Franklin, however, disputed this contention, saying there’s no evidence that dual-platform runs hurt the broadcast station.
“`Friends’ has been on TBS and there’s been no problem renewing it for the third cycle. From the syndicator’s perspective, we’re going to maximize revenue,” Mr. Franklin said.
Though “Everybody Loves Raymond” will premiere on cable’s TBS in July 2004, Joe DiSalvo, president of “Raymond” distributor King World Domestic Television Sales, said the primary model for sitcom value remains with over-the-air television.
“When I look at the ratings of the top three sitcoms [in syndication], `Seinfeld,’ `Friends’ or `Raymond,’ it doesn’t look like cable has hurt.”
Some stations, wary of the sitcom product currently being offered, have found other ways to fill their schedules. Jim Keelor, president of Liberty Media, a midmarket network affiliate group, said he hasn’t purchased any syndicated sitcom fare in recent years and doesn’t expect that to change at the January conference.
“We do not purchase off-net properties,” said Mr. Keelor, whose group focuses on news wherever possible.
In the 1980s, local stations often produced magazine-style programming, typically for the access hour. But these shows have more or less vanished in favor of syndicated comedies, game shows and entertainment news.
Cox’s KTVU-TV in No. 5 DMA San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, the nation’s largest Fox station not owned by Fox, added a 7 p.m. newscast in 1999 to fill a slot that typically houses a syndicated show, often a sitcom, on Fox affiliates. Station General Manager Jeff Block said he doesn’t expect another big syndicated comedy hit until the 2005 season, when “Bernie Mac” becomes available.
Mr. Block in part blamed the growth of reality programming for driving down the market for syndicated sitcoms. “There’s always a low proportion of great shows, even good shows,” he said. “If you normally get one great show out of 10, what do you get out of five?”
For this reason, some station group execs said they’ve become wary of long-term deals on anything but the biggest hits. “Going forward,” said LIN Television VP Paul Karpowicz, “we’re going to take a very hard look at the way the deal is structured. We’re going to shy away from long-term deals. Shows that continue in perpetuity as long as they’re on the network don’t always do well in syndication.”
Twentieth Television’s Mr. Franklin pointed out that long-term deals can benefit everyone. He used “The Simpsons” as an example of a program that buyers are presumably pleased to be tied to for the show’s prime-time life. “It goes both ways,” Mr. Franklin said.
Some broadcasters said they have high hopes for Buena Vista’s coming entries, “My Wife and Kids,” already sold in most of the country, and “According to Jim.” Echoing ghosts of sitcoms past, some suggested that former “In Living Color” star Damon Wayans of “Wife and Kids” has a shot at being a “Cosby” for another generation, and Buena Vista has suggested that Jim Belushi’s popular show has elements reminiscent of “The Honeymooners.”
Other entries from Buena Vista Television with syndication hit potential, “Scrubs,” of must-see TV fame, and “8 Simple Rules,” will come later in the year but won’t be at NATPE in January.
Picking syndicated hits remains as much art as science. “At the end of the day,” said Sinclair’s Bill Butler, “the show has to be repeatable and it has to be funny.”
“I’ll tell you how to buy a sitcom,” Mr. Butler said. “Take four episodes. Sit down with a cup of coffee and play them back to back. If you’re laughing at the end of the first one, it’s OK. If you’re laughing at the end of the second one, that’s a good indicator. If you’re still laughing at the end of the third and the fourth, pay any price.”