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Carsey-Werner Still Open for Business

Carsey-Werner Domestic Distribution President Jim Kraus has been letting the world know, one phone call at a time, that the high-profile distribution outfit he leads is still in business. He began fielding calls from confused customers in June, when news broke that producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner would shutter production for everything but Fox's That '70s Show at the last of the major independent TV studios to handle all production and distribution functions.

Carsey-Werner was keeping its distribution and feature-film divisions intact, but that seemed like an afterthought. Headlines screamed that the studio behind such mega-hits as The Cosby Show and Roseanne was conceding defeat at the hands of media giants.

In statements, Carsey left open the possibility that she and Werner might come back to work on certain projects. But further causing confusion in the marketplace, Werner moved on to another production venture.

Kraus, who was in the midst of numerous conversations about Carsey-Werner's syndicated product, reassured nervous program buyers. “We told them, even if [Carsey and Werner] had stayed and put three pilots together for this fall, nothing would have changed for us.”

His sales staff isn't going anywhere—and with good reason. The domestic and international distribution wings of the company have turned its program library into a $3 billion cash cow over the past decade. And they continue to sell nine syndicated comedies.

Months after the company sold the second cycle of That '70s Show to 190 broadcast markets and cable, Kraus was elevated to president in September 2004. The five-year deal he engineered, starting in 2008, reportedly fetched more than $700 million.

Kraus declines to discuss specific figures. He did raise backend revenue on Carsey-Werner's two top series, pairing The Cosby Show—the first sitcom to surpass $1 billion in syndication—and Roseanne in a comedy block with A Different World. “We knew that they have a lot of life left in them,” he says, “but that we would have to rework the business model.”

So a few years back, the studio began offering stations the choice of licensing the aging all-barter evergreens as one, two or three back-to-back half-hours for daytime. Clearance levels for the trio soared from 70% of the U.S. in year one, when sold individually, to 90% by the third year.

Once clearance levels surpassed 80%, the distributor had enough coverage to attract national advertisers and cut the level of lower-margin direct-response sponsors in half. It also secured cable deals for Cosby and Roseanne on TBS, the WGN Superstation and Nick at Nite; they rank among Nick's highest-rated shows.

Though first-run production is no longer an option, Kraus doesn't rule out Carsey-Werner's distributing first-run or library product from an outside producer.

“There are a couple prospects that we're following up,” he says. “We've also looked at a bunch of first-run programming that others are funding, but we need to be very selective.”

Kraus' first priority, as always, is selling his company's own shows—as well as reminding people that it's business as usual at Carsey-Werner.