T Dog Media Blog Think Tank: Is the off-network sitcom dead?

That’s the question TVnewsday’s Steve Passwaiter is asking (registration may be required.) With the sitcom drought on the networks, the reliable comedies needed for stations not affiliated with the big three networks to fill non-prime time periods are fading away, and there is nothing coming in to replace them.

Many stations are using the time slots that were once reserved for off-network sitcoms are now being filled by newscasts and other first-run syndicated programming. For example, Fox-owned WTTG in Washington, D.C. announced this week they are launching a new 6 p.m. newscast on Sept. 10., and possibly the new tabloid magazine show TMZ at 6:30. At one time, the station carried a block of off-network sitcoms from 5 to 8 p.m.

Another Fox-owned station, WJBK in Detroit, will return to the news game at 11 p.m. on Sept. 24.

WFLD-TV here in Chicago recently launched a 10 p.m. newscast that is beating WBBM-TV’s news show in some key demos.

But moreover, stations are using news because the costs are low, and they don’t have to hand over money to a syndicator, or share the show with a cable network. Plus, with the presidential candidates expected to spend record amounts of money on television ads, stations now have a valid excuse to expand newscasts, since politicians often target news-oriented programs to spend dough on their campaigns. Some station groups, like Fox, are aggressively expanding their newscasts to take advantage.

On the other hand, CBS-owned WWJ-TV in Detroit, or Sinclair-owned ABC affiliate KDNL-TV in St. Louis don’t have newscasts. Those low-rated news operations respectively shuttered in 2002 and 2001, and the owners of those stations have no plans to get back into the local news business in those markets anytime soon. Somehow, they claim that doing news is too expensive for them.

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There have not been any successful off-sitcom stories in the past several years, and those that are currently running in high-viable time periods, like Seinfeld, Friends, and Everybody Loves Raymond, are concurrently playing on cable TV in those same early fringe, prime access, and late fringe time periods, siphoning off rating points from broadcasters.

And the current sitcoms now on the air on the networks are nowhere near the popularity of the three yours truly just mentioned.

Plus, the studios are now selling sitcoms to cable before they are offered in broadcast, with Twentieth Television selling My Name is Earl to TBS before selling it to any local station. Local station groups are now nothing more than also-rans to syndicators when it comes to off-network products. Is there going to be any interest in Earl when it is sold to stations? Twentieth may have to do what they did with Yes, Dear and Still Standing and take Earl out on an short-term, all-barter basis. That means that stations don’t have to pay anything to get it, but have to surrender half of their available commercial time to the syndicator, and the syndicator sells that time to national advertisers.

It’s just an example of how the studios now have more power over their product than ever before. There has been consolidation on both sides of the fence, (syndicators and station groups), and it drives the price up for everything, despite the lowered ratings.

Yes, my friends, it’s getting ugly out there in TV land, and it’s bound to get even uglier.

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