Everybody loves sitcom

With the success of Everybody Loves Raymond in its first year in off-network syndication, sitcom distributors breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

Why? Because Raymond was the first bona fide off-network hit for TV stations since the launch of Friends into syndication four years ago.

That's one of the longest droughts the business has endured without an off-network sitcom hit. But, with Raymond collecting big ratings in reruns, the question now is whether the fall 2002 crop of off-nets can repeat the trick.

This September, sitcoms Dharma & Greg, Will & Grace, That '70s Show and The Hughleys debut off-net. A fifth, The Larry Sanders Show, debuts as a strip on Bravo and as a weekly in broadcast syndication. And MTV's reality-based Road Rules travels into syndication, too.

Next season, stations get two more sitcom shots with King of Queens and Becker, followed by Malcolm in the Middle in 2004.

But comedies may become precious commodities if TV trends continue. One reason fewer sitcoms have hit the mark in off-net syndication recently is that fewer of them are coming up to bat on the network lineups, says Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, Katz Media Group.

"We've seen an increasing number of reality shows take up time periods where sitcoms used to be," he said. "The reality shows don't repeat well."

Will & Grace, NBC's solid Thursday-night performer (produced by the network but distributed by Warner Bros.), and That '70s Show from Carsey-Werner probably stand the best chances of clicking in syndication, in part because both are current series still performing well in prime time. Twentieth's Dharma & Greg performed well for ABC for four seasons before slumping in its fifth and final year on the network.

But Twentieth Television sold Dharma into off-network early and to strong stations, including the Tribune outlets in New York and Los Angeles. That will help its overall chances of success. Tribune has also picked up Will & Grace, which otherwise is cleared in 90% of the nation. That includes Tribune's "superstation" WGN-TV Chicago, which will air it until the end of the 2004-05 season, when it will be picked up by cable's Lifetime.

That '70s Show, a solid performer for Fox since the 1998-99 season, has cleared on 173 stations, including many Fox affiliates. For its syndie launch, Carsey-Werner has arranged a promo tie-in with Kiss, the rock band that was a sensation in that decade.

Promotion may make a difference, too, particularly in an increasingly fractionalized television universe. In one promo, the cast of Will & Grace got to show off their singing abilities in several shots, including one in which they sing a version of Louis Prima's "Hey Boy, Hey Girl."