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Fans Know What They Like, Repeatedly

Foundations of Syndication

Part I: The viewers

You’d think they’d scream, enough already! But television viewers, whose tastes can change in an instant, show no sign of tiring of three off-network sitcoms: Sony TV’s Seinfeld, Warner Bros.’ Friends and King World’s Everybody Loves Raymond.

Consider this, a month and a half before NATPE: The three classics are among the highest-rated shows in syndication and often draw more viewers than many prime time programs on the broadcast networks.

That kind of staying power is rare. For example, ABC learned the hard way that viewers could get too much of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. The popularity of these sitcoms is almost a psychographic aberration.

Off-net Friends, Seinfeld and Raymond run on cable and broadcast, and Raymond is still producing new episodes for CBS. But viewers are flocking to the off-net versions, even as sitcoms hit the DVD market, as Seinfeld did last month. And that’s for repeats of repeats.

In the topsy-turvy off-net world, viewers specifically gravitate to episodes they’ve already seen, the precise opposite of what happens to most current prime time programs repeated during the summer.

The Syndicated Network Television Association (SNTA), which represents syndicators to advertisers, notes that, for the broadcast season through Nov. 7, Everybody Loves Raymond on CBS, the top comedy on prime time television, pulled an average 5.8 Nielsen rating in the 18-49 demo. In syndication, it earned just one rating point less.

In fact, in the adults 18-49 demographic, all three shows typically generate ratings in the 4-plus range most days of the week. SNTA says the shows rank in the top 10 in most demos when compared with all programs on TV.

With viewer interest so high, the top-rated off-nets are likely to continue to defy the relatively brief life cycle of most off-net shows.

David Mumford, executive vice president of planning and operations at Sony Pictures Television, explains that, while some viewers move on to other shows, new viewers replace them. “What we found with Seinfeld and some other comedies is that there is a whole new crop of viewers every year that come out of college,” he says. “The Seinfeld pilot premiered in 1989. If you’re a 20-year-old USC kid right now, you were only 5 years old when it came out.”

Terri McKinzie, associate media director at Starcom USA, says new viewers coming to top-rated off-nets are demographically similar to viewers who currently watch the show in syndication or watched it when it was new on network TV: “The younger people are coming in, so the audience continues to refresh. The core audience, from a demographic perspective, kind of stays the same.”

Those three shows far outperform any other off-net comedy in syndication, according to media buying agency Magna Global USA. Through mid October, all three shows had a 4.2 rating adult 18-49—Raymond posting a 20% year-to-year increase, Seinfeld and Friends down slightly—putting them 1.7 rating points ahead of the nearest competitor, Twentieth Television’s That ’70s Show.

“This season, the [off-net] shows that are stable or growing are the stronger sitcoms that already had a following and were high-rated in broadcast,” says Jordan Breslow, director of broadcast research at MediaCom. “The shows that are squeaking by, like Becker, Coach and Dharma & Greg, did okay on network but relied on the show that aired before it [to deliver an audience to them]. Those shows will have a limited life cycle in syndication.”

In the recent past, off-net sitcoms (outside of a handful like M*A*S*H and I Love Lucy) tended to be gone after one or perhaps two cycles in syndication.

But Seinfeld begins its third cycle in 2006, stretching its run to 2011. Friends starts its second cycle next season, sold at prices close to Seinfeld’s $4 million per episode. Raymond begins its second cycle in 2008.

A big reason for their success is the lack of high-profile programs to replace them. Only three network sitcoms went into syndication this season and five modestly rated sitcoms such as ABC’s My Wife & Kids are set to hit off-net next season.

Blame reality. The number of broadcast network sitcoms fell from 43 in fall 2000 to 36 this season, according to Magna. During the same time, reality shows grew from zero to 16.

“The whole reality craze really impacted sitcoms tremendously, so stations are starving for A-level comedies,” says Bruce K. Rosenblum, executive vice president of research at Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. “There used to be a tremendous amount of programs available. Now there is a shortage.”

But no matter how few sitcoms are heading to syndication, the big three off-nets—Raymond, Friends, Seinfeld—wouldn’t stick around if viewers weren’t watching them, says Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming at Carat USA. “As long as people continue to watch these shows,” she says, “the syndicators will continue to sell them.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.