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Cable-to-Cable Is Next Big Thing

The cable market for top off-network programs this summer is almost as hot as New York's steamy sidewalks. Twentieth Television's Steve MacDonald, executive VP and general sales manager of basic cable, has been behind three of those deals. In three weeks, MacDonald and his team closed deals for rookie network hits Glee, Modern Family and The Cleveland Show. Modern Family is headed to NBC Universal's USA for a reported $1.4 million an episode, Glee to NBCU's Oxygen for $500,000 an episode, and Cleveland to TBS and Adult Swim for a similar price.

MacDonald talked to B&C's Paige Albiniak about what's driving the market and off-net syndication's next big thing. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Why is the cable market for off-nets so active right now?

If you are a potential buyer and you need programming for 2012, '13 and '14, you are saying, "Holy cow, we have challenges if we want to buy a hit to drive all of these originals we have planned."

Several things have happened at the broadcast networks that have created a limited supply. The WB and UPN merged into The CW. NBC cut back at 8 p.m., and then got out of the 10 p.m. business. CBS has been so successful that there's not much left to sell off from that network. And while ABC has had success with shows such as Dancing With the Stars and Grey's Anatomy, there hasn't been anything new to sell there until this past season.

If you are one of the big five cable networks and you really delve in and take that micro approach, you see that there's not a lot out there. That drives the price and the pace of acquisitions.

Most of last year's broadcast hits have been sold to cable networks. What's next?

The next marketplace that will be recognized is the basic cable-to-basic cable market. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is off-FX, premiered on Comedy Central at the end of May to very strong numbers.

When that show starts airing on cable five days a week, it suddenly becomes much easier to catch a few episodes. Look at Reba, which went to Lifetime off The WB. A lot of people were afraid of that show because it came off The WB and didn't have big ratings behind it. But it ended up being one of cable's [top] sitcoms when it went to Lifetime. I think Sunny will be the first step toward more basic cable-to-basic cable sales.

USA made a preemptive bid for Modern Family, essentially forcing the market to go much earlier than expected. Is that a precedent?

It's not actually the first time that's happened. What has changed things is that the basic cable market for movie packages has been preemptive for a couple of years, and that's bled into the series side. In the case of movies, a network will often pick up a studio's entire slate for $100 million or $150 million without even seeing how the movies do at the box office. Why can't you do that on the series side? 

We just saw USA enter the sitcom business in a major way with its purchase of Modern Family. Should that surprise us?

USA wants to broaden its brand and its reach. USA was built on the backs of off-net acquisitions such as NCIS and House; now, they want to do the same thing to launch original sitcoms. They want to develop single-camera sitcoms, in the vein of Modern Family, that look like they belong on the network, just like their dramas do.

There's been some question about how Modern Family performs in repeats. How do you think it will fare in syndication?

On ABC, Modern Family is in an incredibly challenging time period on Wednesday at 9 p.m., and it doesn't have a lead-in. What would Modern Family's ratings look like if it had a Two and a Half Men lead-in and was sandwiched between that and CSI: Miami? Modern Family has been handicapped because it hasn't been in a sitcom environment.

The same question goes forGlee: Dramas tend to not repeat well. How do you think Glee will do?

I really believe in my heart of hearts that Glee will do well. Because of how the show is built, with story followed by performance followed by story, it's something that people will want to see again and again. The show's music is so wide and so pervasive, and the characters are so easily defined, that anyone can jump into any episode. 

Part of theGlee deal allowed you to also sell Oxygen a Glee-based reality show, which isn't a typical part of an off-net sale. How did you guys do that?

That was really a company-wide collaborative effort in terms of making that available in the cable market, because the producers, Twentieth Century Fox Television, Fox and us all had to be on board for that to work.

E-mail comments to and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

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.