HBO Opens Syndie Sales

HBO has a question for cable networks and stations about three comedies, including Entourage: Is that something you might be interested in?

By the end of March, the pay-TV network will be in the marketplace selling syndication runs for Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sex and the City.

Executives have already held meetings with buyers about the off-HBO runs of Entourage and Curb. By the end of this month, they will start making formal sales presentations, says Scott Carlin, HBO president of domestic distribution. Carlin's team is also talking to stations about the second broadcast syndication cycle for Sex and the City.

Sex and the City was the first series HBO sold into syndication, and was done so in a then-unusual windowing between cable network TBS and local stations. TBS got the show exclusively for 18 months, during which time the basic cabler had rights to run two episodes in primetime, then repeat them the next day. Then the broadcast window opened up, allowing stations to strip the comedy.

The TBS deal continues through 2012, but the broadcast portion of the first cycle concludes in September. Carlin says SATC station incumbent Tribune is among the broadcasting groups he is talking to about cycle two.

In SATC's first cycle, sold on a cash-plus-barter basis, TBS paid around $750,000 per episode, and stations' cash license fees totaled about $300,000 per episode, according to estimates.

But the marketplace is a drastically different one today, with stations struggling and the ad market depressed as well.

Given stations' challenges—particularly the Tribune Co., which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection late last year—HBO will not rule out a barter-only deal for SATC. Estimates place the barter advertising earned for the show in its first cycle at $1.5 million per episode.

Since Carlin started HBO's syndie department in 2002, his group has sold hundreds of hours of programming, but it's been years since they've been out with a big comedy series.

“Everything has its own life and time,” Carlin says. “We think now is a pretty interesting time to begin having some conversations with people about these shows.”

Many people in the industry expected HBO to take Entourage out sooner in its life cycle, when it was at the height of its buzz. But a combination of factors meant holding off. Long before Tribune, one of the most important station buyers, filed for Chapter 11, it was experiencing corporate issues that made buying complicated. And then there was the WGA strike.

“The writers' strike pushed everyone off traditional timeliness and set us back a little bit,” Carlin says. “Now we have a good sense of what the future looks like, how many episodes, when we can deliver.”

Entourage is about to go into production on season six, set to debut this summer. Once completed, there will be 78 episodes. No seasons have been ordered beyond that. Curb is in production on its season seven, bringing that show to 70 episodes.

“We certainly have the minimum threshold to make these shows viable in the marketplace,” Carlin says.

While HBO will be out selling these shows relatively late in their runs, most shows that go into syndication have more episodes guaranteed by the time a syndicator trots them out. This could work to HBO's advantage. In this economy, the smaller number of episodes translates to a more manageable investment if a buyer is paying a per-episode cash license fee.

But the aspect of these shows Carlin expects to be most important to buyers is the fact that they are established programs with virtually no advertising in them. He says previous deals prove it is “a huge sales benefit” to be able to sell the first opportunity to associate a brand with an HBO show.

Both Entourage and Curb will likely be made available to run in syndication starting sometime next year.

Terms and windows will be determined based on buyers' needs and availability and the best offer. “There is no fixed template,” Carlin says. “We'll adapt to the best opportunity.”

Paige Albiniak contributed to this story

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