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Edgy Sitcoms Bank on Big Payoff

Two racy sitcoms are looking for lucrative off-network paydays in fall 2007. Without strong competition in the comedy field, Twentieth Television’s animated Family Guy and Warner Bros.’ Two and a Half Men are in an enviable position.

But Twentieth and Warner Bros. first need to convince skeptical stations that their shows can avoid the sitcom failure of late. Among comedies that have gone into syndication the past few years, only Everybody Loves Raymond has performed strongly.

Hollywood is keeping a close eye on the slugfest. The high expectations created by sellers could turn shows like the top network sitcom Men into a litmus test, as studios seek to recoup their huge network-comedy production deficits in syndication. Warner Bros. expects the sales dance to heat up this week with Tribune and Fox. And Twentieth is pitching Guy to the two station groups, along with CBS’ New York, Los Angeles and Chicago stations.

Still stinging from its financial woes and the loss of A-level sitcoms to rival Fox, Tribune finds itself in a vulnerable position, which could drive up the price the Chicago-based broadcaster needs to pay to rebuild the value of its stations.

Warner Bros.’ bids for huge license fees have, in some instances, led to unprecedented deal terms. For instance, the syndicator is asking stations to carve out an hour apiece for the first and second runs of Men reruns on the weekends, which would result in the show’s airing four times on Saturdays and Sundays, rather than once like other sitcoms. And if stations aren’t willing to step up with big offers, Warner Bros. has left open the possibility that a cable buyer could grab Men first.

In addition to license terms, stations have raised questions about both shows’ blue humor. To counter those concerns, Twentieth has prepared a list of family-friendly brands, such as Johnson & Johnson, that support Family Guy on Fox.

Given the shows’ high prices, station groups are considering alternative plans. At least one station buyer is looking at acquiring the second-cycle rights to Sony Pictures Television’s King of Queens for bargaining leverage, station executives say.

Demographics are also an issue. Family Guy, which was canceled in 2002 only to return to Fox in 2005 to become the top-rated young-male sitcom, airs against ABC’s female magnet Desperate Housewives. Despite its guy humor, Men’s CBS audience skews female, as it squares off against testosterone-fueled programs like Monday Night Football, Prison Break and 24. Each supplier predicts its show will better attract the opposite sex in syndication.

Promotion will be a key component, says Twentieth TV President Bob Cook: “My rule of thumb with sitcom promos is that we must show universal humor. The best tack is to appeal to adults 18-49.”

Twentieth will be watched closely to see if it ultimately sells Family Guy to parent Fox station group. But Cook and Paul Franklin, executive VP/general sales manager, say the studio will be aggressive with the $500 million franchise, selling to the highest bidder. Both emphasized a vigorous sales campaign last week, previewing a lengthy presentation tape of Family Guy geared toward the Tribune group.

Twentieth, Cook says, debated whether to wait “until the numbers grew bigger” on Family Guy before greenlighting the campaign, which compares the adult cartoon with The Simpsons for its ability to repeat well.

But the urge to beat the summer doldrums and take advantage of the improving financial health of stations prevailed—as did Twentieth’s desire to go mano a mano with Men, which Warner Bros. had already begun shopping.