Road to NATPE: Stations Looking at ‘Men’ Warner Bros.’

Nov 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In an atmosphere in which the networks have struggled for several seasons to create the next generation of comedy hits, “Two and a Half Men” stands out with one of the highest profiles as well as one of the strongest ratings stories among current prime-time comedies.

So as “Men” distributor Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution begins the syndication sale of the half-hour comedy, the studio has a hold on a rare commodity. It also controls the only property coming into syndication anytime soon that insiders consider capable of breaking through the top tier of veteran half-hour strips.

While many buyers say they are eager to get “Men” on their schedules, whether “Men” has the firepower to take on established off-network comedy strips such as King World’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Sony’s “Seinfeld” and Warner Bros.’ own “Friends” remains to be seen.

Still, Warner Bros. executives, potential buyers and other syndication insiders agreed that by waiting until now to make the show available for syndication, the picture of “Men’s” potential to become a hit off-net comedy is much clearer than it was a year ago.

Considering the success of the show and the dearth of performing comedies coming off the networks, it would have been natural for Warner Bros. to begin the “Men” sales push at the end of 2004. But Warner Bros. executives decided last year to hold off, perhaps until this winter, to offer “Men.”

The idea: Wait until fall 2005, when CBS would move “Men” a half-hour earlier on Mondays, from 9:30 p.m. (ET) into the pole position 9 p.m. slot, replacing the departed “Raymond” and give “Men” the chance to prove it has not been merely riding “Raymond’s” coattails.

For Warner Bros. to make the claim that “Men” has a shot at cracking the “A-list,” waiting until it got to 9 p.m. was a necessary strategy, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of television for Katz Television Group.

“If you’re going to position a show as a blue chip player, then it has to be able to stand on its own,” Mr. Carroll said. “Even if it doesn’t achieve ‘Raymond’ final-year levels, it certainly is achieving the highest ratings on Monday night, which is the most successful sitcom night for CBS.”

“Men” is CBS’s highest-rated comedy this season in adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research. On Monday nights, it is the second-highest-rated series for the night in the demo after “CSI” (football excluded).

While “Men” has solid ratings and is coming into the marketplace without competition that is likely to challenge it for the top available time slots, another factor in a successful sale is the economic health of the buyer, said Dick Robertson, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution president, in an interview with TelevisionWeek.

With the automotive sector currently in a slump and business soft at the station level, going out and securing deals right now may not be in the company’s interest, considering the economic outlook for stations may improve in the first quarter of 2006.

“We may wait for the new year,” Mr. Robertson said, adding that the station business tends to experience biennial spending cycles with Olympics and elections.

Even if “Men” hadn’t fared so well in its new slot, it would be in the syndie spotlight, one top 10 station programming executive said.

“It’s a good ensemble comedy,” the station executive said. “It does have star value, and there are so few decent off-network sitcoms that any station group is going to have to look very seriously at it.”

“Men” is not the only off-network sitcom available as a strip for 2007, but in terms of value, the only other show expected to garner considerable attention from stations is Twentieth’s animated “Family Guy,” which may be available as early as fall 2006 or could be held until later (see accompanying story).

Regardless of the off-net comedy dearth, “Men” also is highly anticipated due to its compatibility with existing hit off-net fare and the fact that the show’s viewership appears to be on the upswing, experts said.

No matter what else is available, there are logical time slots for “Men,” Mr. Carroll said.

“Stations that have had success with shows like ‘Raymond’ are going to be looking in a very interested way at ‘Two and a Half Men’ as the logical companion show,” he said.

The fact that “Men” is still catching on with the overall audience is a sign that it may do well in syndication, said Garnet Losak, VP and director of programming at Petry TV.

Still, Ms. Losak is skeptical about the likelihood of “Men” unseating the current top off-network performers.

“Is it a game changer?” Ms. Losak said. “Probably not. But could it be a really good sitcom? Yeah, it could.”

While the most recent sales of off-network product have been described as “station-friendly” deals with little or no license fee, Mr. Carroll said Warner Bros. is expected to shoot for a “more traditional deal in the vein of ‘Raymond,’ ‘Friends’ or ‘Seinfeld,'” which could mean big bucks for the company.

Mr. Robertson said “Men” could claim the same license fee and ad revenue coin that the top off-net strips have earned.

In February 2004 Sony sold the third cycle of “Seinfeld” for nearly $1 billion for five years, down from its record-setting second cycle in 1998-about $2 billion-but still a hefty fee. At the time, sources said that Fox-owned KCOP-TV in Los Angeles would pay a $425,000 per episode license fee for “Seinfeld.”

While a sale of the show to a station group such as Tribune or Fox is the more traditional route for high-profile off-network product, Warner Bros. is mulling a sale of “Men” market by market instead of going with a group deal, Mr. Robertson said.

“We may feel we could do better going city by city,” he said.

Another factor will be what Warner decides to do in terms of a cable run, Ms. Losak said.

“If I have three, four years of exclusivity, that tells me something different than if I’m sharing it with TBS,” she said.

Mr. Robertson did not go into specifics over exclusivity, but said the company will look to reach a certain financial threshold for the series, either solely with stations or as part of a deal that also includes a cable window.

“We’d sell it to the stations exclusively in a New York minute,” Mr. Robertson said. “To us, it’s the money.”

The whole concept of exclusivity is debatable for the most popular off-network fare, since increased exposure may also increase a show’s visibility in syndication, said Jim Paratore, executive VP of WBDTD and president of Telepictures Productions.

“We’ve all done the duplication studies,” Mr. Paratore said. “You could make the case that it’s helped as much because there seems to be something in the half-life of these shows when they’re a hit.”

Not surprisingly, some station executives who are likely to be asked to pony up for the show say that even without a cable run, Warner Bros. may be in for some resistance if it demands fees on par with what big hit sitcoms like “Friends” once commanded from stations.

“We make up now in volume of sitcoms and turnover of sitcoms what we used to have with one or two big swinging hit sitcoms,” the station executive said.

Just as it has impacted network prime-time schedules and first-run syndication, viewer erosion has also taken its toll on off-network strips, another station executive in a top market said.

“We’ve had to adjust our metrics for that, and the syndication people are going to have to do that too,” the executive said.