What happens when there are no sitcoms to rerun
Charlie Sheen has a tough job. Not only must the star of CBS’ Two and a Half Men make lines like ”Apparently, Mom wasn’t the only parasite at dinner tonight” zing, he also has to carry the future of TV comedy on his back.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration — but only a slight one. Given that the six broadcasters have collectively launched one hit sitcom (Men) in the past five years, the syndication market — which feeds successful five- and six-year-old sitcoms to cable networks and to local stations that use them to fill pre- and post-prime-time time slots — is suffering from a severe case of malnourishment. Without Seinfeld– or Raymond-like successes to sustain the syndication beast (Men won’t be available for syndication until 2007), the prices of proven series have soared to ridiculous levels. ”Since there are fewer sitcoms coming down the pipeline, there will be fewer hits. That’s why the values of shows like Friends are up,” says Jim Paratore, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. And how: Warner Bros. sold reruns of the comedy to local TV stations for a second go-around in 2001 for a hefty $4 million an episode; more recently, it made a pact with Nick at Nite that will keep the series on daily until 2017. That’s a phenomenal haul for a show that’s been in syndication since 1998.
This failure is not for a lack of trying. Between 1989 and 2004, the broadcast networks launched a staggering 476 comedies in prime time, but only 67 made enough episodes to be syndicated. And of those 67, only 12 ranked in Nielsen’s top 10. Meanwhile, the success of reality shows and procedural dramas hasn’t filled the syndication void (in general, they don’t rate as highly in reruns) and has significantly curtailed comedy development. In the last seven years, the number of new sitcoms on the networks’ fall schedules has shrunk from 36 to 10. The most troublesome aspect of the comedy crisis is that even in the best-case scenario — if all 10 of the networks’ new comedies are resounding hits — the syndication market will continue hurting for five years until these shows reach that magical 100-episode mark that’s necessary for a successful syndication launch.
So what’s a Friends-less station to do? Settle. Nick at Nite recently bought The Jeff Foxworthy Show, a forgettable mid- ’90s series that made only 41 episodes for ABC and NBC. And Sony Pictures TV, which owns a vast comedy library, dusted off old chestnuts like The Nanny and Mad About You to sell to local stations. Though these two shows have been off the air since 1999 (and didn’t light the world on fire toward the ends of their runs), the studio has sold them to 94 percent of the country; they begin airing Sept. 12. Sony executives say they have similar plans for other series in their vaults, which include The Larry Sanders Show, Who’s the Boss?, and Married. . .With Children. ”Every studio is working hard to develop sitcoms, but I think there’s a greater appreciation for quality sitcoms that have been on TV,” says Steve Mosko, Sony Pictures TV president. ”These shows hold up because they are timeless sitcoms with great writing.”