With New Off-Net Programming Buys, Tribune Marks Return to Sitcoms

Tribune Broadcasting’s acquisition last week of Warner Bros.’ Mom marks a return to off-network sitcoms for the TV station group.

In recent years, Tribune has backed off from buying sitcoms, opting instead to try first-run fare, such as CBS Television Distribution’s Arsenio and Debmar-Mercury’s Celebrity Name Game in time periods typically reserved for sitcoms. Those shows ultimately didn’t perform in those time slots, however, with Arsenio canceled after one season and Celebrity Name Game being moved back to afternoon slots where it’s working better.

In 2006, Tribune paid an estimated $2 million an episode for Warner Bros.’ Two and a Half Men, executive produced by Chuck Lorre. Eyebrows raised across the industry because the show was not yet the hit it would grow into, but the investment paid off nicely, with Men becoming the highest-rated sitcom in syndication from 2007-11, lifting Tribune stations in key access time periods.

In 2010, Warner Bros. brought another huge hit, The Big Bang Theory, also produced by Chuck Lorre, to market. It was widely assumed that Tribune would acquire that show, but the broadcaster—at the time still emerging from bankruptcy—was outbid by the Fox Television Stations.

The scenario was similar for Twentieth’s Modern Family, which came to syndication in 2011—premiering on TV stations and USA in 2013—and ultimately went to the Fox-owned stations in an 11-year deal.

When the next major sitcom buying opportunity came around—Warner Bros.’ 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly—Tribune opted to not really go for either of them, although the group does own both shows in a few markets.

“At the time, we were down on sitcoms because of cable exposure and [subscription video-on-demand] unknowns,” says Sean Compton, president, strategic programming and acquisitions for Tribune Media. “We looked at Mike & Molly and 2 Broke Girls and weren’t sure how we felt about them at the time because we had other first-run priorities and projects.”

By largely staying out of the bidding, Tribune encouraged a new buyer to come into the off-net sitcom market: CBS, which had recently acquired WLNY New York, and needed programming.

But the way Tribune thinks about off-network sitcoms seems to have come full circle. Last week, the group said it had acquired Mom, starring Allison Janney and Anna Faris as a mother and daughter experiencing their recovery from addiction together, in 16 markets including the top three of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Mom has all of the elements required for off-net comedy success,” said Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, noting that the show is now cleared in 71% of the country. “There has been a Chuck Lorre multi-camera comedy atop the off-network syndication ratings for an astounding 457 weeks in a row dating back to 2007.”

Earlier this summer, Tribune acquired Sony Pictures Television’s The Goldbergs, and both of those shows will premiere next fall on Tribune-owned stations. This fall, Tribune is premiering Twentieth’s Last Man Standing, starring Tim Allen, in several markets, including in primetime on newly independent WGN Chicago. All three shows are intended to freshen up Tribune’s sitcom blocks, where Two and a Half Men is finally showing its age.

“It’s not about buying hits anymore, it’s about buying cash flow. It’s all about the deal,” says Compton. “Our biggest hit in Los Angeles is our news. Our biggest in Chicago is our news and sports. What we have to do is surround that programming with shows that throw off money and create complementary linear viewing habits.

“With Last Man Standing, we created a deal that was good for both parties. We’ll give the show a chance to work, and if it doesn’t, the downside is minimized.”

In general, that characterizes Tribune’s overall view toward sitcoms: They perform a useful function for TV stations, pulling in viewers and advertisers, as long as they don’t break the bank. And Compton no longer worries about putting shows on SVOD platforms, such as Friends on Netflix, because that exposure to new audiences helps far more than it hurts.

The best performing sitcoms, such as Big Bang and Two and a Half Men, will likely always be expensive, but those shows are few and far between.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.