Off-network sitcoms on rebound… or are they?

Is the off-network sitcom drought about to come to an end in syndication? It very well may be.

But stations may have other ideas.

This story from TVNewsday reports on the off-network sitcom drought this coming season and the number of sitcoms coming down the pike in September 2009. For the first time in recent memory, there are no fresh off-network sitcoms available for syndication (with the exception of Debmar-Mercury’s House of Payne, which is off-TBS.)

But next year, several off-net sitcoms are hitting the market, including NBC Universal’s The Office and CBS Television Distribution’s Everybody Hates Chris, and maybe Twentieth’s My Name Is Earl (which could be held until 2010.) Earl and Office have already been sold as a strip to TBS for a Septemeber 2009 start date.

This past season, Warner Bros.’ Two and a Half Men and Twentieth’s Family Guy did quite well in their off-network debuts, ranking number one and number two respectively in key demos.

For the future, syndicators are also tapping cable for sitcoms. Programs possibly headed for broadcast off-net syndication include Weeds, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Also coming down the pike soon is American Dad from Twentieth, possibly for 2010.

While product is coming back to the market, stations may be hesitant to bite. Many have found ample replacements for the lack of off-network syndication. For example, WGN-TV is launching a new 5:30 p.m. newscast in September and WXIX-TV in Cincinnati launched a 6:30 p.m. newscast this week. Both time slots have been occupied with sitcom reruns for as long as anyone remembers (since Adam and Eve first appeared on earth, basically.)

Plus, non-traditional affiliates (Fox, CW MyNet, and indies) are saying the same thing Big Three network affiliates said about off-network sitcoms years ago: they don’t want to be tied down to a show for four or five years while they make money off local (mostly news) or first-run syndicated programming (though CBS-owned WWJ-TV in Detroit and ABC affiliate KDNL-TV in St. Louis think otherwise – they program no news.)

And broadcast stations still don’t like sharing off-network sitcoms with cable. In fact, Chris-Craft/United Television, the former owners of KBHK-TV (now KBCW-TV) in San Francisco and KMSP-TV in Minneapolis signed only three-year contracts for Friends when it debuted in syndication in 1998 – because Friends was also sold to TBS with a 2001 start date. Friends moved to KTVU-TV and KSTC-TV in those markets respectively that same year.

With sitcoms now airing on cable (namely TBS), and the current crop of programs not meeting expectations for the most part, it’s little wonder why stations has lost their taste for off-network sitcoms.

T Dog’s Think Tank: Is the off-network sitcom dead?