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Sitcoms Still a Boon, If Stations Can Get Them

Local television has long leaned on popular syndicated sitcoms to draw young viewers to their access and late-fringe time periods. In this cash-strapped economy, off-network comedy can still be an enormous boon for stations, but acquiring the right show—for the right terms—is proving more difficult than ever.

“The right sitcom can be a game-changer,” says one buyer. “So can the wrong one. You can own them forever depending on your deal. Sitcoms can help you take a huge step forward or a huge step backward.”

Warner Bros.' Two and a Half Men and Twentieth's Family Guy, both sold in 2006 and launched in 2007, were the last two sitcoms that stations could call the good kind of game-changers. Both shows command among the highest cash license fees paid for comedies. Two and a Half Men is also the last sitcom for which stations paid a premium for exclusive broadcast rights for the first four years. At the moment, stations don't have the cash to pay such premiums.

Warner Bros. is getting ready to take out the next “A” sitcom, CBS' The Big Bang Theory, for a fall 2011 premiere. The show is popping strong ratings on Monday nights, even beating top-rated Two and a Half Men in its new 9:30 p.m. time slot. While syndicators traditionally go to market when a property is sizzling hot, as Big Bang Theory is now, sources don't expect the show to enter the market until early next spring or later. Warner Bros. executives have indicated that they will wait for the market to strengthen before taking the show out.

Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz Television Group, expects stations to do their best to rally for BBT. “A broad-appeal sitcom, especially one that comes after the success of Two and a Half Men, will cause stations to give it a second look,” Carroll says.

Station executives agree that BBT would make a great addition to their sitcom lineups—if they can afford it. Some even believe BBT could go exclusively to cable. Two cable networks recently proved they would pay big bucks for hot syndication properties: TNT and USA paid about $2.4 million per episode for two off-CBS dramas, The Mentalist and NCIS: Los Angeles, respectively.

Cable's ability to pay top dollar hurts stations in two ways: It gives cable first shot at top shows, and lets the shows become overexposed. “You have to be wary about how many cable runs a show is getting and how many cable networks they are going to go to before you get them,” says one station executive.

Following a years-long dry spell for sitcoms, there are now plenty of choices but very few A-level hits. Big Bang Theory might change that, but it also might prove that stations no longer have the buying power to acquire top programs.

“There are more options, but there are not a lot of blue-chip options,” Carroll says. “The blue-chip options are the ones that are sustainable.”

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