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Serious about syndication

When ABC, Fox or CBS produce a hit comedy or drama from one of their own studios, the Walt Disney Co., News Corp. and Viacom all reap the rewards of off-network syndication sales by themselves. And by the time off-network sales for a strong comedy such as Everybody Loves Raymond
or Dharma & Greg
are complete, their respective studios stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars from sales to local broadcast stations.

When the final sales of NBC Studios' comedy Will & Grace
are counted for its first cycle in off-network syndication, the figure will likely stand between a quarter and a half billion dollars. But General Electric, the corporate giant that owns NBC, won't be collecting all of the cash because a good portion of it will be handed over to Time Warner-owned Warner Bros. Domestic Television.


Because NBC did not have its own domestic syndication division two years ago, when the sitcom was first trotted out for off-network riches. NBC was forced to farm out the sales of Will & Grace
to the well-established Warner Bros. division and at the same time part with some of its potential profits.

"It was a wake-up call to everybody here," says NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa.

When asked how much NBC stood to lose on the deal, Sassa adds, "More than I want to discuss."

The network, under its NBC Enterprises division, had long sold its miniseries, movies and series overseas and to cable outlets by itself-using the small unit, which did not include a domestic sales force, to handle the chores.

"We just never really felt that, at any given time, we had the product flow to support a domestic syndication operation," says Jerry Petry, executive vice president of NBC Enterprises and Syndication, who has been running the division for the past three years. "We didn't want to be reliant on the possibility of getting one network hit and then nothing for years after that."

But that all changed late last year when GE and NBC executives saw money from Will & Grace
leaving NBC to go to outside distributors. In addition, there was an increased push at NBC Studios for more prime time fare.

With the major networks emphasizing production of more of their own programming, NBC Studios would surely provide more potential off-network hits down the road. Throw in more daytime offerings at the NBC owned-and-operated stations and suddenly the need for a domestic syndication division was a necessity.

Former King World and Eyemark/ CBS Enterprises President Ed Wilson was tapped to start the new syndication division, and the network is gearing up for its initial effort, a daytime talk show called The Other Half.

"It was kind of a confluence of events," says Sassa. "First, that someone like Ed was available. And second, that our studio production is starting to turn out enough volume to justify a distribution group."

Wilson, who co-founded syndication company MaXam Entertainment in the mid '90s with new Twentieth Television President Bob Cook, wasted little time getting NBC's domestic syndication efforts going late in 2000. In December, after only weeks on the job, Wilson announced a groundbreaking syndication and development alliance that will bring together the NBC O&Os, Gannett Broadcasting and Hearst-Argyle Television stations. The alliance covers 60% of the country and will allow Wilson's new division to produce a new first-run show each year with the station group's interests in mind.

"Hopefully, it sets us on the right course," Wilson says of the alliance. "Part of the problem with syndication right now is that too many of our competitors are concerned about whether they can sell a show or not. What we've got to be concerned about is, can we produce the show or not and if we can produce good programming. This alliance now allows us to concentrate on just that, the programming."

The Other Half, a daily talk show with four male hosts that's aimed at a female audience, is NBC's first offering under the alliance.