Local U.S. TV Stations Are Weeping Over Comedies

By Dom Serafini

The premise was simple enough and on the minds of many local TV station managers in the U.S.: Now that the strongest situation comedies (sitcoms) have ended on network television and are going into another rerun cycle in syndication, the backbone of local stations -- the sitcom -- is now in jeopardy. Now, what are the local stations to do?

Another problem is that some top-of-the-line off-net comedies have non-exclusivity (they share a window with cable). So are these local stations lacking a variety of strong half-hour shows?

A third problem is that a ninth network TV season is passing by without a sitcom hit. The last successful sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, came out in 1996. On the other hand, there are plenty of serialized dramas. Last May, for the current TV season, the networks selected a total of 19 comedies, versus 35 new drama series.

Dramas, or fiction, as they are called outside North America, are manna for international TV outlets, but bad omens for local TV stations that prefer not to risk two half-hour segments with one show. Therefore, successful and safe half-hour sitcoms have become their key-programming staples.

It is said that this problem for local TV stations is not of recent origin, but, rather, has been brewing for many years, since, as it has been reported, of the 450 sitcoms launched in the past 17 years, only 42 went on to syndication.

It is important to point out that, to face the off-net sitcom problem are TV stations that used to be independent and are now part of station groups and affiliated with smaller networks: in effect, more than 300 TV stations nationwide. On the other hand, affiliates of major TV networks rely on first-run fare for their prime access-time -- the non-network time slot between 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm in the Eastern and Western parts of the country, and 6:30 pm-7:00 pm in the Central region.

Some other dayparts that all affiliates program themselves are early-fringe (4:00 pm-5:00 pm); early news (6:00 pm-7:00 pm); and late fringe (11:00 pm news) for major network affiliates. The former indies schedule their news at 10:00 pm.

Most of the experts VideoAge interviewed for this story would not speak for attribution however, in their view, it seems the problem has reached a critical point.

Apparently, local stations have up their sleeves only a few yet-to-be-tested solutions in order to fill the principle gap of timeslots not supplied by the networks. According to those experts, stations cannot pay to get into one-hour syndicated dramas, because cable networks, which can afford to base their successful schedules on this genre, drive up their high costs. Another drawback for local TV stations is that a one-hour block could present a double-sized risk with two half-hour periods.

Stations face this “recurring” problem, every now and then but continue to buy comedies coming out in syndication even if they did not fare well on network television.

The fact that these sitcoms are not “top-of-the-line,” means that license fees are low, allowing stations to hit their numbers in term of profitability, which, despite all, still reach the 30 percent mark for the former independents, with peaks of 60 percent returns for affiliate stations in major markets.

Naturally, it is pointed out, the low cost of sitcoms will not compensate for very low ratings; therefore it is important that stations strike a good balance.

Granting another chance to old sitcoms that did not do well in syndication is not considered a valid alternative. “If they did not work well before, they will not do well now,” was the comment of a New York-based sales rep.

So, in addition to buying off-net sitcoms, stations are experimenting with current affairs programs, news and even importing sitcoms from cable networks.

For these stations, the first-run route is a difficult one as the cost of risk is too high. Syndicators are trying to solve the problem by putting the financial load on station groups that need this genre and/or pursuing product placement and simultaneous cable windows. Even so, syndicators remain reluctant to dive into first-run programming. Indeed, during last November’s sweeps period, syndicators were aware of the possibility that several shows would be cancelled for poor ratings, but none actually rushed out to offer first-run replacements.

Years ago, an opportunity to bid for a few suddenly opened up time slots, was cause for a first-run production and marketing frenzy.

“Stations will learn how to be more creative,” commented a Washington, D.C.-based former TV station executive, “as in the case of WPIX [in New York] where it successfully branded four old comedies set in New York during the ’70s and aired them on Saturday nights.”
In the view of John Gluck, a co-founder of New York-based distributor, Lettuce-Entertain-U, Llc. (and the only expert willing to be partially quoted), station groups have to form consortiums to produce first-run fare.

Stations are now sitting tight on their five-year plans, patiently waiting for the next cycle of successful sitcoms to come out from the networks, which they hope will occur before the digital wave changes all the rules. The major networks seem to be responding to their own and local TV stations’ need with each network analyzing up to 250 sitcom ideas per season, buying rights to about 50-55 scripts and producing some 15 pilots. Meanwhile, the off-net and off-cable availability is four new sitcoms for a 2005 start and three for a ’06 start: The pressure is on.