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Syndication's New Power

The much discussed paucity of breakout network sitcoms in recent years may have deprived TV audiences of laughs, but it has also withered a lucrative segment of the syndication business. This fall will see just two comedies—both modestly rated—move off their networks into syndication: Fox's Bernie Mac and ABC's My Wife and Kids. Next year, according to media-buying agency Magna Global, it is likely that only three network sitcoms will make the shift. In healthier times, up to five network sitcoms could be expected to take the syndication route annually, with one of them being a top-rated show. The last big comedy sold into syndication was Everybody Loves Raymond, in 2001.

But while TV viewers deprived of first-rate sitcoms might have to make do with reruns of Seinfeld and Raymond, the syndication industry is executing a remarkable adaptation. One trend has resulted in a welter of dramas being slotted into weekend lineups, but perhaps the most significant aspect of the changing landscape is the rise of cable television—as an outlet for off-network shows and as a provider of content for syndication.

“There is an issue with sitcoms, which is an industry problem,” says Terri McKinzie, assistant media director at Starcom Worldwide, which handles media buying for clients including Kellogg's and Walt Disney Co. “But that has opened a window for people to bring in other properties.”

Double Runs Now Standard

The decision by cable networks a few years ago to begin aggressively developing original series turns out to have been a godsend for a syndication industry searching for content: A handful of series now have enough episodes for syndication packages, including FX's The Shield, which made a bit of TV history last month by becoming the first drama series to be sold into syndication on one cable network, Spike, while still playing on another.

“For the most part, original production on cable really only started four or five years ago, at least with signature-type series that help define networks,” says John Weiser, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Television, which produces The Shield. “The libraries of these shows, or the backend value, has only started coming to fruition recently.”

Cable is making inroads with more than drama; of the four comedy shows set to premiere in broadcast syndication this fall, two are from cable: Comedy Central's South Park and HBO's Sex and the City.

The latter, of course, is already running in less risqué form on TBS, which bought the Sex and the City cable- syndication rights last year for a reported $750,000 per episode. (The Tribune company is paying an estimated $1 million per episode for syndication on its 26 broadcast stations.) Sex and the City demonstrates that the sharing of shows between broadcast and cable, which began a few years ago with ER, The West Wing and The X-Files, is no longer a novelty and has “become almost standard practice,” according to Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming at Katz Television Group, which advises stations on program pickups.

Believe It Or Not, Ripley's Was First

Basic-to-basic cable syndication deals could also become almost standard practice before long. Though the sale of FX's The Shield to Spike (at a per-episode price reportedly in the low to mid six figures) garnered plenty of attention as a groundbreaking development, Sony's Weiser points out that his company's Ripley's Believe It or Not on TBS was actually the first basic-cable show to be picked up by another basic channel when Sci Fi bought it last year.

Certainly broadcast networks are still the driving force of the syndication business: The Syndicated Network Television Association (SNTA), which represents most major studios, reports that, of five dramas from its members debuting this year, only one originated on cable: Sci Fi's Farscape. But cable's slice of the syndication pie is likely to only get larger. The market might seem limited because many cable networks with tight budgets make unlikely bidders for quality programming—if they're going to lay out millions, why not produce original content?—but Weiser says the expenditures can be defended because there is comparatively little risk with established properties. (Another consideration: The prospects for syndicating cable fare are unpredictable, since the edgier content of shows like FX's Rescue Me can restrict where the programs can be aired and how much editing will be required to make them FCC-compatible.)

Likely Candidate: Lifetime's Strong Medicine

“In the basic paradigm of supply and demand, the demand is going way up, but the supply isn't going way up,” Weiser says. “That makes a show with a proven track record more valuable in today's market.”

Starcom's McKinzie points to several current basic-cable programs as likely syndication vehicles, including Lifetime's Strong Medicine, FX's Rescue Me and, though early into its run, TNT's The Closer. As she says, “more and more cable networks are moving into original content,” which means more and more material is available to be resold. With no new sitcom bonanzas on the horizon, at least syndicators have that prospect to smile about.