In an otherwise fallow off-network comedy market, Buena Vista Television has decided to make the Touchstone Television single-camera medical series “Scrubs” available for a syndication run starting in fall 2006.
While 90 episodes will be in the can by the end of the 2004-05 television season-enough for a fall 2005 syndication debut-the distributor didn’t pull the trigger on the NBC series’ off-net run until just a few weeks ago. The decision to go forward with a sale targeting a fall 2006 launch was so recent, the company did ot actively sell the show at the National Association of Television Program Executives convention in Las Vegas in January.
“Scrubs,” which stars Zach Braff as a hapless medical resident in a hospital full of oddball characters, has traveled a rocky road in terms of scheduling. As a single-camera comedy with frequent dream sequences and a multicultural cast, “Scrubs” has defied sitcom convention by navigating between broad comedy and the arcs of more traditional medical shows. At the same time, it’s been a consistent ratings performer since it premiered in the Tuesday 9:30 p.m. (ET) time slot on NBC in October 2001.
“Scrubs” is set to enter the market at a time when five other comedy half-hours already are being offered to stations across the country for fall 2006 debuts. Like “Scrubs,” at least two of them-Twentieth Television’s “Reba,” and Buena Vista’s “According to Jim”-also have performed competitively in their primary, prime-time runs but are not considered breakout ratings successes. In addition, Twentieth’s “Still Standing” and “Family Guy” and Paramount’s “One on One” also are expected to be taken out to station groups for 2006.
“Jim,” which Buena Vista started selling in January 2004, already is cleared on stations representing more than 90 percent of the country. But due to “Scrubs”‘ continuous bounce around NBC’s schedule, Buena Vista decided it wasn’t ready for a launch until it began performing consistently in a 9 p.m. time slot.
“In late January it finally made it to the anchor spot,” said Lloyd Komisar, executive VP of strategic research for Buena Vista. “It moved around extensively on NBC. It moved five times in four spots in less than four years. `Scrubs’ is getting no lead-in support whatsoever and is doing a remarkable job creating a tentpole for itself.”
Buena Vista’s “Scrubs” pitch to stations is expected to play up the strength of its appeal to the young demographics that stations traditionally seek with blocks of off-net comedies.
“It has a very strong young-adult appeal, which matches the profile of sitcom successes in access and late fringe,” Mr. Komisar said. “We know it by the nature of the appointment quality it has. We’re confident it has this core young-adults viewership that demands to see it, despite all the movement.”
The distributor is expected to offer the show on a cash-plus-barter basis, which is the model used for Twentieth’s “Reba” and Buena Vista’s “Jim.” Beyond that, Buena Vista said it has not nailed down sales terms for “Scrubs.” (The deals for “Reba” and “Jim” also incorporate double runs as part of their two-year deals with stations.)
Buena Vista declined to say whether it expects to offer a concurrent cable run. Of the shows expected to enter syndication in 2006, “Reba” has a barter-only cable deal with Lifetime, while “Still Standing” is cash-plus-barter with the female-centric cable net. Both “Reba” and “Standing” begin airing on Lifetime in September 2006, while “Jim” is set to air on TBS starting on an all-cash basis in 2009.
Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group VP and director of group programming, said that with the dearth of A-list sitcoms in the marketplace for 2006, he expects stations to be high on “Scrubs.”
“With the limited number of quality sitcoms available, there will obviously be substantial interest in the show,” he said. “Most will look upon it as a solid utility player.”
“Scrubs”has won a Humanitas Prize and has been nominated for Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Producer’s Guild Award. It averaged a 5.3 rating in adults 18 to 49 and 11.2 million viewers for the 2001-02 season, according to Nielsen Media Research.
For the 2002-03 season, its sophomore outing, “Scrubs” made the move to the plum post-“Friends” time slot, Thursday at 8:30 p.m., where it had a season ratings average of 7.9 in adults 18 to 49 and garnered 15.9 million viewers.
The next season, its third, “Scrubs” moved several times on NBC’s schedule. “Scrubs” started out in its Thursday 8:30 p.m. time slot in September 2003, but then moved to Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 30, 2003. In February 2004 the show was moved to Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m., where it was the lead-out to “Frasier.” “Scrubs” averaged a 5.0 in the demo and 10.3 million viewers for the 2003-04 season.
Traditionally, in a show’s third season distributors begin to feel out the market for an off-net run once it becomes clear the show will get an all-important fourth-season pickup, and in turn enough episodes for syndication. If “Scrubs” were going to debut in fall 2005, which is the soonest it would have enough episodes to run in syndication, conventionally, Buena Vista would have begun to pitch the show to stations in the show’s third season, most likely by early 2004.
Mr. Carroll said the scheduling moves and lack of clarity about “Scrubs”‘ future during its third season appeared to play a part in the delay, but that Buena Vista itself had to prioritize, since it was selling not only “Jim” in early 2004 but also “My Wife and Kids,” which goes into syndication this fall. Both “Wife and Kids” and “Jim,” Mr. Carroll said, had proven themselves to be anchor players on ABC long before “Scrubs” got its chance at 9 p.m. on NBC.
“This was a good strategic decision,” Mr. Carroll said. “They would have ended up competing against themselves with `My Wife and Kids’ and `Jim.’ Also, at the time they took those shows out the scarcity of product was not as readily apparent as now. We have a clearer picture of how NBC will utilize the show and a clearer picture of what the market is going to be.”
For 2004-05, “Scrubs” started out on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. behind the animated comedy “Father of the Pride.” After “Pride” was canceled, “Scrubs” had the benefit of the surprise hit “The Biggest Loser,” which was expanded to 90 minutes per episode, as a lead-in. After “Loser” wrapped, “Scrubs” took over the 9 p.m. spot, where it has been averaging 2.9 in the demo. “Scrubs” has been a consistent fourth-place finisher in the time period, but with competition such as the “American Idol”-fueled “House” on Fox, CBS’s “Amazing Race” and ABC’s “Jim,” NBC has been happy with the show’s performance. In May 2004 NBC and Touchstone Television, which produces “Scrubs,” reached a deal for the show to run on the network through May 2006. Buena Vista expects to go into syndication with a package of 112 episodes.
“When you consider the lead-in competition and also the strong upscale profile of the `Scrubs’ audience, it really does continue to be a valuable program for us,” said Tom Bierbaum, VP of ratings and program information for NBC Universal Television Group.
Mr. Komisar said the fact that “Scrubs” consistently outperformed the rest of NBC’s Tuesday lineup in young female and male demos during February sweeps proves the show has an audience. “We think because of all the movement we have endured it is a story that needs to get out,” Mr. Komisar said. “If you look in the post-`Seinfeld’ era, only two comedies have survived for more than two seasons on NBC-`Will & Grace’ and `Scrubs.’ A lot of shows had the benefit of great lead-ins. Very few earned their stripes.”