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Season Four KeyTo Comedy Laugh Track

ABC’S Cougar Town is traveling to TBS, sealing that show’s fate and sending it into syndication. The deal had to come as a relief to the show’s producers, who were holding their collective breath until this key question was finally answered: Would our show make it to the magical fourth season so it could head into the lucrative land of syndication?

“I have often said that a studio’s worst day is when a network says that it’s going to pick up a show’s third season,” says Chuck Larsen, president of October Moon Television, which represents producers. “After the third season, the studio faces the biggest deficits that it’s ever going to have on that series, so you are going to do everything you possibly can to get to that fourth season.

“Most sitcoms probably run a de! cit of $1 million an episode, so by the end of the third season, the studio could be in deficit by as much as $66 million, assuming 22 episodes a season,” Larsen adds.

Thus, the frequent drawn-out discussions over whether to keep so-called bubble shows on the air. NBC’s Community, produced by Sony Pictures Television, also is caught in this dilemma. In fact, NBC’s 13- episode pickup of the series makes SPT’s job harder when it comes to syndication, because after the truncated fourth season there will only be 84 episodes to syndicate. Typically, studios need at least 88 and preferably 100. Community is already sold to Comedy Central (where it will be paired with NBCUniversal’s 30 Rock) and to SVOD-platform Hulu Plus.

That precarious position also means the networks willing to step in and save a sitcom’s skin can get it at a bargain price, which likely explained TBS’ interest in Cougar Town. “TBS can promote it as an original,” notes Larsen. Plus, the show won’t face the same ratings expectations on TBS that it does on ABC.

Even if a show makes it through four seasons, syndication is not a guarantee of automatic wealth. For example, SPT’s sitcom ’Til Death, which posted low-to-mediocre ratings when it aired on Fox, managed to make it into syndication. But with only a 0.6 live plus same day average household rating, the show is not throwing off very much cash. And syndicating shows is an expensive business, with the costs of distribution, marketing and residuals averaging approximately $20 million per year.

Two years ago, HBO syndicated its two critically acclaimed comedies, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. But both shows averaged just a 0.6 household rating in late-fringe time slots. Last May, HBO decided that keeping the shows on the air was not worth it.

On the other hand, syndication can play a part in keeping a declining show afloat. After seven seasons on NBC, the network decided not to renew Scrubs. ABC, whose parent company, Walt Disney Co., also owns the show’s producing studio, decided to pick up the series, at least in part because Scrubs had lucrative broadcast and syndication deals in place. Similarly, CBS picked up Medium when NBC decided not to renew that series, because the CBS-produced show was in profit due to its back-end deals.

“If you make $10 million on a low-rated show in syndication, I guess that’s $10 million you didn’t previously have,” says one syndicator. “But in general, when you are doing one of these iffy shows and you are carrying a deficit, it’s better to stop it earlier than later.”

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