The Big Bang Theory is heading out for sale, and the deal that Warner Bros. inks for it will be the benchmark by which all other sitcom transactions are measured—until Twentieth Television brings out Modern Family for a 2013 launch.
“Scarcity and the competitive spirit will dictate this deal-making,” says one cable executive. “When it comes down to it, you have two good halfhours— Big Bang Theory and Modern Family—coming to the market in the next three years. Everything else is secondary.”
The major question for Big Bang is how much cash it can garner in this market. The last off-net sitcom that got any real cash from stations was Twentieth’s How I Met Your Mother, which completed its deals by late summer 2009, or before the economy capsized.
But all predictions are that Big Bang will be the show that brings cash back. Industry observers say Warner Bros. expects to get at least the same amount of money for Big Bang that it got for its huge hit Two and a Half Men, in the neighborhood of $4 million per episode, including its nearly $800,000-per-episode deal with News Corp.’s FX, according to reports.
On broadcast, the deal’s terms will be set by “gatekeepers” Fox and Tribune, the two groups that air sitcoms in the top markets. Two and a Half Men has been a saving grace for Tribune, and Big Bang is considered the perfect companion to that show. As Big Bang heads to market, Tribune’s debt-holders are restructuring the company’s $13 billion in debt, much of which will be written off, say sources. That should leave Tribune much healthier and with more cash to spend on acquisitions.
One hitch to making a deal with Tribune is that any acquisition it makes for its stations, it also makes for its cable network, WGN America. If another cable net gets exclusivity, Tribune won’t be inclined to pick up the show for its stations.
The Fox station group may be changing around its sitcom lineup dramatically come fall should the network add Conan O’Brien to late fringe. That move shouldn’t affect Big Bang sales because that show is expected to play in access for the first few years, but the addition of O’Brien to Fox’s late-fringe lineup will reduce the availability of sitcom slots. Fox also is well known for being unwilling to pay big prices even for the hottest shows.
THE PRICE OF EXCLUSIVITY
The second question around Big Bang is whether any bidder will pay for exclusivity. Neither broadcast group is likely to pay for that privilege, as Tribune did with Two and a Half Men. And cash-flush cable networks still would have to stretch to afford exclusivity, so the show is likely to premiere simultaneously on broadcast and cable.
TBS and FX are expected to be Big Bang’s two major cable players. Other cable networks mentioned as potential bidders include USA, Comedy Central, Lifetime and even TV Guide, which recently acquired Ugly Betty, Weeds and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Should Tribune acquire the show, WGN America would likely share a window with its cable winner.
The most cable has ever paid for an off-net sitcom is Sony’s Seinfeld, which TBS acquired for $1 million an episode. With Twentieth’s My Name Is Earl and NBC’s The Office both going to TBS for approximately $750,000 an episode, sources say that cable networks should expect to pay between $750,000 and $1 million for Bang.
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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.