The folks at CBS Television Distribution are mighty happy — so
happy that you can almost hear the sales-force machine humming.
The reason? The company recently acquired Hot in Cleveland from TV Land with
plans to take the cable original out to syndication in either 2013 or ’14. If it works,
it’ll be that rare bird: a cable-TV original with a successful afterlife in broadcast syndication.
“I think it will be a tremendous hit,” Scott Koondel, president of distribution for CBS Television
Distribution and senior vice president, corporate licensing and distribution, said.
“It’s a popular multi-camera sitcom that really lends itself to a broadcast audience.
“TV stations tend to skew older than most cable networks. And it has some really familiar
faces — everyone knows who Betty White is. So the benefit is, it’s underexposed. Hot in
Cleveland is really well-written and will be new to a lot of viewers on broadcast; there’s a
higher chance of success than other shows.”
Cleveland certainly does have the earmarks of success: It’ll be coming out in a favorable
marketplace with a lot of CBS PR firepower; there’s no cost for production and little risk.
So, will it be the show to finally make that transition from cable original to broadcast syndication
money-maker, a terrain that has tested other high-profile entries from The Closer
to The Sopranos to Sex and the City?
“Sex and the City was a moderate hit in syndication, and it had a narrower audience,”
Koondel said. “It was about four sexy women in New York City. We have four middleaged
women who are really funny and have broad appeal. Hot in Cleveland falls into the
broadcasters’ sweet spot.”
It could work … stranger things have happened. But others in the industry believe there
haven’t been many stranger things. Yes, Cleveland is underexposed, some say, but TV Land
is still available in the majority of the country, and people haven’t been tuning in. Ratings
have fallen a bit, and
funny as the show is
— and as much of a
firecracker as White
may be — the show
appeal to the young,
male skew that normally
tunes in to
More than anything,
shows that in a marketplace
viewing options, evolving business models and a fountain of content, cable originals appear poised to make
a greater dent in the syndication market. But like all shows that head this way, it’ll all come
down to the eyeballs (read: dollars) each individual show can attract.
“The real question always is, what is the anticipation, and does a show deliver an acceptable
audience for it to work for advertisers — and not as much locally as on a national
basis?” Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz TV Group, said.
“That’s the icing on the cake, and in many cases, it’s the cake.”
HISTORY AND HURDLES
Off-net syndication has been around for decades, as a vital bankroll tool in the broadcast
industry, a loyal friend of late-night viewers and the primary reason why millions the world
over know the phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty.”
But in cable, it has only been tried with sitcoms and hours for the last decade or so, urged
on by an opportunity to bring award-winning pay cable fare such as The Sopranos and Sex
and the City to a wider audience.
Comparatively speaking, however, the sell is much harder. If the Big Four networks,
by and large, trade on their broad appeal, basic and premium cable networks use their
unique branding as bread and butter to lure the faithful — and, by word of mouth, a
stream of interested viewers.
But more niche plays don’t always translate as well in syndication — figuratively and, in
the case of The Sopranos and other series with unrestrained language and content, literally.
The Sopranos was unique in that its intense popularity on HBO brought it a 2007 syndication
deal on A&E Network for $2.5 million per episode. But remove the offensive language
and references — and take out the significant DVD sales the series generated — and, bada-
bing!, you’re left with a series that hasn’t lived up to ratings hopes.
In the good news/bad news department, shows that are often too associated with one
cable network aren’t what other networks are looking for. It’s only recently that more sitcoms
— from South Park to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — seem to have found success
in one form or another in the syndication market.
“If you went back five years, you pretty much had nothing,” Steve McDonald, executive
vice president, general sales manager, basic cable for Twentieth Television, said. “You
had no business where cable shows were migrating to cable networks; you had significant
branding issues; cable networks that produced a show didn’t want it on another network;
and buyers didn’t want to buy, because, what did that say about their originals? And that’s
gone from where you started
to where you are today.”
Another long-held and
supported assumption is
that female-skewed fare will
not play in a market that
mainly brings in young male
viewers. It’s a scenario that
worked against The Closer
which — despite now averaging
8.3 million viewers and
2.3 million in adults 18-49 for
TNT — was sold for weekend
plays on Fox stations, instead
of as a Monday-through-
Some executives argue
that male-led shows or action
shows work better in syndication.
“Law & Order does work,”
one TV-syndication executive
who declined to be
identified said. “CSI
works. But if you can
watch Law & Order
with the sound off,
and follow up and
enjoy it for 10 minutes,
it’s a smash.
Because that’s how
people watch syndication
“The guy with the
greasy hair is the
bad guy, the cleanlooking
guy is the good guy, you can recognize the woman in trouble and I can’t wait to
see how she’ll get saved — that’s the magic.”
Sitcoms have always had an easier time of it in syndication: they have a more versatile
length, and produce higher ratings and ad rates. But the universe of popular and broad
original cable sitcoms is smaller than what you see on broadcast.
“You’re looking at a much smaller base,” Carroll said.
That includes Comedy Central’s South Park, which has had success in broadcast syndication,
and more recently, FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which plays on Comedy
Central, both to some success. And TBS still airs Sex and the City in its cleaned-up version.
The same can’t be said for pay entries Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Each was
sold in three-year deals to Tribune Broadcasting stations, but both were pulled last May,
after one year, due to dismal ratings. The off -HBO duo seemed to suffer from the same
niche/content/branding argument that works against pay-cable shows.
Debmar-Mercury famously went about things an entirely different way, working with
Tyler Perry to create a test run of 10 episodes of House of Payne in 2006 for TBS, with the
option of an additional 90 episodes to air nationally if the first 10 succeeded.
That model is now in place for Charlie Sheen’s return in Anger Management, set to
premiere on FX in June, and counteracts the normal process by melding the two sides of
production and syndication.
“There are no other deals that have gone this way and we have no idea why, other than
that at a studio, it tends to be church and state between the network and first-run syndication,”
Debmar-Mercury co-president Ira Bernstein said. “They have to figure out how to
work together and be on the same page.”
Anger could give an additional nudge to broadcast syndication, but many in the industry
also believe that the constantly increasing spread of multiplatform options, and the recent
subscription video-on-demand investments are of greater importance. The fact that
viewers can now turn to Netfl ix to watch entire seasons of edgy fare such as Mad Men and
Weeds could serve as a testing ground for certain shows and, by extension, put more pressure
on the syndication marketplace.
HOPING FOR A HOME RUN
As the industry continues to recover from economic malaise, and as viewers appear to differentiate
less and less between broadcast and basic cable, the idea of a true breakthrough
original cable hour or sitcom making a greater play in broadcast syndication is inevitable.
Standards of language relax, and more apps by networks such as HBO and TBS afford
Monk and Burn Notice work on MyNetworkTV, and It’s Always Sunny and South Park have
held steady. Is there a chance that Hot in Cleveland will be that magic series — a show with
crisp scripts and a bankable star, ready to be discovered by a new audience, despite lowered
current ratings on TV Land that put it at around 1.8 million viewers and a 0.4 in the demo?
If so, it’ll simply need to be that home run in a
field of singles and doubles, attracting traditional
and new syndication viewers, and helping usher
the way to more cable original fare.
And when you’re trying to sell in this market,
“it comes down to content,” Twentieth’s McDonald
said. “It’s not as much about whether a show fi ts
through the brand filter from one network to the
other. I think really what the conversation comes
down to is do you have a really special piece of content.
Just like you have to have with a broadcast
show moving to cable syndication, you have to have
a really good show.”