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Upfront Deals Reveal New Rules of Distribution

NBCUniversal's The Mindy Project, which Fox canceled earlier this month after three seasons, illustrated what’s been clear for some time—the old rules of distribution are no longer valid. And the new rules are no rules at all.

“Syndication is moving away from black-and-white,” said a distribution exec who attended last week’s upfront presentations. “It used to be sitcoms were worth either hundreds of millions or nothing. Now there are a lot more options.”

Today, niche sitcoms can be sold to subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) providers, cable networks, TV stations and even diginets. It all depends on what the market is willing to pay, but all of the different types of buyers means there are more ways than ever for producers to monetize their investments. That’s good news for fans of quirky comedies.

That said, the sitcom continues to be a challenged genre, with no broadcast networks picking up very many of them, and nothing striking media buyers the way Twentieth’s Modern Family did way back in 2009—as an obvious hit right from the trailer. (Who can forget Cam raising adopted baby Lily to the skies, Lion King-style, in that pilot’s final scene?)

While studios are faring well due to the plethora of customers in the marketplace and to the popularity of serialized dramas for binge-viewing purposes, the broad-based hit sitcom remains TV’s holy grail. A true “A” sitcom—The Big Bang Theory, Friends, Seinfeld, Two and a Half Men—can power a studio for decades. Warner Bros.’ Friends and Sony Picture Television’s Seinfeld are both more than 20 years old and each is still fetching $100-million-plus deals.

Warner Bros. this summer will start pitching buyers on The Big Bang Theory’s second cycle, which starts in fall 2018. With the Emmy-winning comedy still performing well on CBS, TBS and broadcast syndication, there’s every chance that show’s license fees will remain high.

That brings us back to The Mindy Project, which under the old rules would have been relegated to the sitcom dust heap, having been canceled at the end of its third season, traditionally the most dangerous time in a sitcom’s lifespan. The end of season 3 previously was when sitcoms were at their most expensive—the perilous time when studios had invested the most money prior to having enough episodes to take the show into syndication.

That’s all changing, however. There are currently 67 episodes of The Mindy Project. Hulu is expected to pick up two more seasons, which means probably another 26 episodes will be produced to bring the show’s total to 93—enough for broadcast and cable syndication.

A sitcom has never gone from SVOD into TV syndication, but that’s likely to change. Should Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt rack up enough episodes, that show could feasibly be sold to a cable network or even to TV stations.

The overall shortage of comedies means a branded property such as Mindy should still have some cachet and might pair well with other off-net sitcoms, such as Twentieth’s New Girl, which TBS will start running this fall along with Warner Bros.’ 2 Broke Girls. TBS also would be able to get The Mindy Project for a bargain price, unlike 2 Broke Girls, for which TBS is said to have paid $1.7 million per episode.

While a lot of attention is paid to cable originals, almost all of those are launched on the back of acquired programming, whether that’s off-net sitcoms on TBS or Cops on Spike. Some 70% of the programming on the top 10 cable networks is composed of acquired programs.

“Off-net offers significant brands with familiar audiences,” said a distribution exec. “Cable [needs] proven, identifiable shows that can help transition audiences into originals, match their brands and generate significant viewers.”

Considering how few sitcoms are launched, cable will have even more need for new shows, even niche ones such as Mindy. “There’s so little available product that cable networks are going to go after programming that has some marquee value,” said Bill Carroll, VP, director of programming, Katz Television Group.

TV stations also remain in the sitcom business, but they tend to want broad sitcoms that attract large audiences, including men. That’s the group that’s really having to bide its time waiting for something to break out. “Stations will always come back when there’s something to buy,” said Carroll.

At this rate, however, stations can keep their wallets closed until at least 2019.

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.