Naughty Is Nice

Since their Sept. 19 debut in broadcast syndication, the sassy girls of Sex and the City and the potty-mouthed kids from South Park—all characters born on cable—have been strong performers, despite their late-night time slots.

In its first week, Sex and the City came out strong, averaging a 2.0 national household rating with 2.56 million viewers. In its second and third weeks, Sex maintained its 2.0 rating/4 share in overnight ratings from 53 metered markets. In both of those weeks, the show held even with its lead-in. The top Sex markets were Kansas City, Mo., Chicago, New York and Atlanta.

Sex is scoring with young viewers. In the seven markets that use Nielsen’s new local-people-meter system, which reports demographic ratings daily, Sex is drawing well with young women and adults 18-34. Ratings are up at least double digits from the lead-in shows among women 18-34 and 18-49.

Sex and the City is playing on 216 stations, representing 96% of the nation. South Park, the raunchy Comedy Central hit, is on 135 stations, reaching 86% of the country. South Park airs later than
Sex on most stations, but ratings are still healthy.

In its first week, South Park pulled in a 1.4 household rating and averaged 1.87 million viewers. It dipped somewhat to a 1.3/4 in week-three overnight ratings. A possible winning strategy: The comedy is playing especially well on WKBD Detroit, where it follows The Simpsons. Nationally, however, South Park is down 19% from its lead-ins. The syndicated version of the show is being distributed by Mort Marcus’ Debmar Studios, Ira Bernstein’s Mercury Entertainment, and Tribune Entertainment.

Both series feature the kind of racy content and off-color language that cause station managers to fear FCC indecency fines. So stations slot the shows in late-night time periods ranging from 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. ET; the FCC’s indecency rules don’t count for shows that air after 10 p.m.

But station managers are still concerned about possible complaints from viewers and advertisers, so the shows have been sanitized with careful editing. Sex and the City, which ran ad-free on HBO, had to be cut down to 22 minutes to accommodate commercials, allowing a racy secondary storyline in each episode to be trimmed.

“There is so much more to this show than the risqué parts,” says Jim Paratore, president, Telepictures, and executive VP, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which is selling Sex. “It has great characters, smart writing, relatable stories and glamorous settings.”

The early successes show that some of cable’s edgier fare may be able to be syndicated to broadcasters. With fewer high-profile comedies coming off broadcast networks, TV stations must look elsewhere for their acquired product.

“These shows aren’t going to do the numbers of
Seinfeld, Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond,” says Horizon Media research chief Brad Adgate. “But they do have audience recognition and will bring in desirable demos.”

Often, when a broadcast show moves into syndication, its first-run ratings suffer from overexposure. Cable’s Comedy Central is guarding against that problem by running promos reminding viewers that it’s the only place to see new South Park episodes, which debut Oct. 17.

But South Park and Sex and the City (shown in a racier version on TBS) are holding up on cable. During the last week in September, TBS, which runs four Sex episodes a week in prime, averaged 1.66 million viewers, slightly above the network’s prime time average. South Park was also a draw for Comedy Central, with an average 1.18 million viewers for six prime time episodes.

Whether those shows can maintain ratings without antagonizing general managers (or viewers) in the process is still as questionable as the lunch meats served at South Park’s elementary school.