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Original Shows Add Fuel To Cable’s Syndie Fire

5/26/2006 8:01 PM Eastern

For years, cable networks have filled their schedules with syndicated shows from the Big Four broadcasters. But lately, cable channels have increasingly turned to their cable colleagues for off-network programming.

In March, for example, Spike TV began carrying reruns of the edgy police drama The Shield, a hit show that helped put its fellow cable outlet, FX, on the map.

“This is the first time ever that a basic-cable network picked up another basic-cable network’s signature show,” said John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television, which syndicated The Shield.

But The Shield on Spike TV is just part of a crop of cable shows whose reruns are already running, or will start to run, on other cable networks.

They include:

  • Six Feet Under, which finished its run on Home Box Office last year, will begin on Bravo in the fourth quarter.

  • The Sopranos, the iconic HBO drama, will debut on A&E Network in January 2007. The basic-cable network is planning to schedule the show’s reruns with back-to-back episodes in a two-and-a-half-hour block.

  • Showtime’s Dead Like Me started running on Mark Cuban’s HDNet this month.

  • Disney Channel’s Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens will go into syndication on Superstation WGN in September.

  • Reruns of HBO’s Sex and the City continue to air on TBS.

“This is a watershed year with the amount [of cable networks running reruns of other cable channels’ shows],” said Jim Packer, executive vice president of MGM Worldwide Television, which, along with Sony Television, pioneered syndicating cable shows.

“I definitely think this is going to be a critical year to see how successful these launches ultimately prove,” Packer said. “It also speaks a lot to the power of a successful show and a brand.”

FX’s Rescue Me and Comedy Central’s Reno 911 are the next series that may wind up in syndication.

“We’re preparing right now Rescue Me, which is another very successful show on FX, certainly a very distinct brand,” Weiser said. “It has very loyal audience and advertiser base to it. We’ve gotten calls on it … We’re thinking about plans for that right now.”

There’s an obvious reason why cable networks are increasingly looking to acquire — and pay big price tags for — syndicated cable series. During the past five years, cable networks of all kinds have ratcheted up the amount of original programming they’re presenting, and having success with it. That has created a new source of product and enough episodes of these cable shows for the syndication market to sell.

On the buyer side, cable networks in general are shelling out more money for programming, be it original or syndicated fare from their cable colleagues. But it hasn’t always been that way.

“For comedies, free-TV syndication has always been a much more significant revenue pool than cable, because cable’s never been able to outbid the value of 200 TV stations paying you a license fee; the aggregate value of the 30-second spots that you get everyday in that program,” HBO president of domestic programming Scott Carlin said.

“There’s usually been almost [a 2-1 or 3-1] differential in the value of free-TV license versus a cable license,” Carlin said. “That’s starting to shrink a little bit. Some cable networks have become very, very aggressive.”

Some programmers have also been pickier about the kinds of deals they are striking for shows they are now buying off of cable.

They don’t want the kind of syndication pacts that have been typical for an off-network broadcast show. Those deals usually include a broadcast and basic-cable window, with TV stations permitted to run a show during the weekend, while a basic-cable network gets rights to air it during the week.

“That’s fairly typical of shows that get syndicated: They end up sharing a basic-cable and free-TV syndication window,” Carlin said.

But A&E and Bravo wanted, and ponied up for, exclusive rights to air reruns of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, respectively, without any windows for broadcast or any other cable outlets.

“Ostensibly, A&E bought out the broadcast rights, given what they paid for the series,” Carlin said. “That was a condition of the deal, that they would get exclusivity against all free-TV and other cable networks. And we were delighted to make that deal, given what they were paying.”

A&E is reportedly forking over $190 million, or a record $2.5 million an episode, for The Sopranos. HBO handled the syndication of its mob hit, as well as Six Feet Under.

“Six Feet Under again was an exclusive cable deal,” Carlin said. “And there were really not enough episodes of that to syndicate over to free TV, so that went straight to cable.”

A&E believes it was well worth its while to do a deal that precluded any broadcast syndication for The Sopranos.

“We do pay for that, but in this case we felt it was a wise investment,” A&E executive vice president and general manager Bob DeBitetto said. “We felt that the franchise was so strong, it was to our advantage to essentially own it exclusively in linear television, rather than in a sense be competing in the marketplace not just for viewers but also, in the advertising market, competing with local stations, which is in fact the case with many shows, including Sex and the City.”

A&E will control and own all ad inventory in The Sopranos.

Bravo, which reportedly paid about $15 million for Six Feet Under, wanted exclusive rights to the show. The series is a perfect fit for Bravo, in terms of its demographics, according to Frances Berwick, the network’s senior vice president of programming and production. Bravo, which years ago ran HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, wanted Six Feet Under all to itself.

“It gives you more freedom,” Berwick said. “If you co-platform with [broadcast] syndication, it usually limits you to particular time periods or days of the week. Often, that ends up with they take weekends, you take weekdays. This gives us much more latitude scheduling it.”

WGN also sought and received exclusivity for Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens, which it bought from syndicator Buena Vista Television.

“We pursued it, and found out we could get it, not only exclusively to cable but exclusive to broadcast as well,” WGN general manager Bill Shaw said. “That’s a big plus. It obviously makes a great deal of sense, not only numbers-wise, but cable operators look for exclusivity as well.”

WGN, which retains all the ad inventory for its Lizzie and Even Stevens replays, is looking for those shows to draw younger viewers in the late afternoon-early evening.

“We think it will pop some numbers,” Shaw said.

Not all cable networks want their shows to run on other cable networks. Comedy Central, in a $100 million deal spanning five years, opted to syndicate its signature show South Park to broadcast stations, but not cable, last September. Comedy Central had questioned whether it should even sell South Park to broadcast.

“There was a lot of internal debate over whether or not we wanted to do broadcast syndication, because we didn’t want there to be any confusion between the Comedy Central brand and where you go for South Park,” said Chris Pergola, senior vice president of finance for Comedy Central, Spike TV and TV Land.

“But there’s a tremendous amount of money involved in it, and after really examining it, we felt like our consumers, our viewers, advertisers, really make a pretty clear distinction between broadcast television and what you can get on cable TV,” he said.

Comedy Central also initially was worried that the broadcast run might hurt South Park’s ratings on cable, but the series remains Comedy’s highest-rated show and is doing its best numbers ever, according to Pergola.

But Comedy Central never overcame its fears that its brand identity would be threatened if it sold South Park reruns to another cable outlet, so it didn’t sell it into that market.

“Given the fact there was so much of a connection between what the South Park brand means and what the Comedy Central brand means, we didn’t want to risk the confusion between those two,” said Pergola.

Packer argued that an off-network show can perform well with a simultaneous cable and broadcast run.

“Multiple windows, if done properly, shouldn’t affect the success of the show,” he said.

Sex and the City’s run on TBS, which started in June 2004, provides somewhat of a track record of how a cable-to-cable show, with a broadcast window as well, can perform. The broadcast syndication of the show started in September last year, on Tribune stations, as a strip. TBS is now airing Sex on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, but in late 2007 the cable network can begin stripping it, as well.

TBS paid an estimated $750,000 per episode to sister service HBO for Sex. And the pricey investment seems to have paid off. TBS used the series as a leg for its rebranding of TBS as the “very funny” network, according to Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

“The network spent a ton of money, a significant investment in repositioning the network, and this show was a significant part of that because we knew that it was a very strong property,” Wakshlag said.

Sex is the No. 1 comedy in ad-supported cable among adults 18 to 34 and 18 to 49, averaging 553,000 and 1.07 million in those demos, respectively, season to date, according to Wakshlag. Sex is attracting sizable audiences on TBS despite its plans on TV stations.

“Would the show perform stronger if it wasn’t on broadcast too?” he said. “The answer is probably a little bit.”

The Shield will start its broadcast run later this year.

“The Shield is sold to 100% of the country starting in September,” Weiser said. “Literally every single market in the country will be airing the show, which is very rare.”

The three shows being syndicated by HBO — Sex, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under — all present the same advantages, and issues, when they move from the premium service to basic cable. All the shows have to be edited, using alternative shots and voice loops from HBO, to meet basic-cable standards and practices. But A&E is finding that only about 30 seconds of the running time per episode of The Sopranos needs to be cut, according to DeBitetto.

One of the biggest advantages to the basic-cable networks that buy them is that the shows have only been seen by a portion of America’s TV households.

“Those shows were only available in 30 million households,” DeBitetto said. “We’re available in roughly 90 million households. So for two-thirds of the A&E potential viewership, The Sopranos will be first-run programming.”

In their syndicated runs on cable, shows like The Sopranos and Sex can “tap into the loyalists, the fans, of the series” as well as “a whole new audience base of people who weren’t HBO subscribers,” according to Carlin.

“For advertisers, it’s a tremendous draw for them because they’ve never had an opportunity to associate their brands with any HBO content, given our non-commercial nature,” he said.

Because HBO doesn’t run ads, its shows run longer than a typical cable or broadcast show. Rather than radically cut the shows to fit a standard 30- or 60-minute time slot, TBS, Bravo and A&E have all opted to let the episodes run longer, “off the clock,” as Berwick put it.

In the case of The Sopranos, A&E plans to basically run them intact in their original length, adding in commercials and promos as well, which will take the installments past an hour. To accommodate that, A&E plans to run two episodes back to back in a two-and-a-half-hour slot, perhaps from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

“This show deserves it,” DeBitetto said. “There’s no reason we would truncate the show.”

On HDNet, Cuban said he is looking for critically acclaimed off-cable shows like Dead Like Me to attract viewers and create word of mouth.

“Our goal is to addict our subscribers to great programming and to have them tell their friends how excited they are to have just purchased a high-def TV and [that] by subscribing to HDNet there is great programming for everyone in the family,” Cuban said via e-mail.

September