SELLING SITCOMS INTO SYNDICATION

An Inside Look at How Warner Bros. Is Selling ‘Two and a Half Men’

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Dick Robertson and Jim Paratore are nothing if not intrepid daredevils.

Last season, with “Two and a Half Men” doing a 5.7 rating in adults 18 to 49 following “Everybody Loves Raymond,” they could have brought the show to the syndication market. Instead they waited, hoping the sitcom would show even better ratings this year in its new time period, anchoring the 9 p.m. hour on Mondays for CBS.


In fact, the show’s ratings in the demo are down 12 percent this year, but Mr. Robertson and Mr. Paratore say that’s not a bad thing.

It’s all part of the pitch the two men -- who are, respectively, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution and exec VP of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution (as well as president of Telepictures Productions) -- will take to the syndication marketplace in the next few weeks at the National Association of Television Program Executives in Las Vegas starting Jan. 24.

The pitch
Their pitch will go like this.

First, they plan to compare their sitcom with the “Friends” of the world. “Men,” is in the same league as the successful veterans because of its track record in broadcast, specifically in the old “Raymond” time slot, Mr. Robertson said.

“We’re not just replacing a successful network show, we’re replacing a successful network show that’s a big hit in syndication,” he said. “And if we can do as well as ‘Raymond’ was doing in that slot without ‘Raymond’ as our lead-in and you're a buyer, it becomes a lot more valuable to you.”

The pitch for “Men” comprises a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation of key points and a compilation of clips from “Men’s” three seasons.

Mr. Robertson, a 27-year veteran of the company, has pitched at least 31 past series. Two of the division’s execs who helped assemble the sales plan -- Bruce Rosenblum, exec VP-research, and Keith Freidenberg, VP-research -- explained how the company arrived at many of the findings in the pitch.

“Men” is being offered to stations in what is considered a traditional deal -- two runs a day, with the option of exclusivity from cable if the finances can be negotiated.

Timing
Part of developing Warner Bros.’ pitch for “Men” was the issue of timing, Mr. Robertson said. He and his colleagues explored the idea of starting the syndication push last year, especially since there were no highly rated comedies coming on the market, he said. But waiting until now to go to market, rather than a year ago, when it was clear the show would have enough episodes produced to support a syndie run, was merely a calculated risk -- not a big gamble, he said.

Warner Bros. waited to unleash its pitch in part to give the show a chance to prove it does not need to rely on its former “Raymond” lead-in on CBS to draw a significant audience and stand up to stiffer competition on other networks, Mr. Robertson said.

Among the other reasons Mr. Robertson and company are calling “Men” the only available A-list off-net sitcom on the horizon and expecting stations to pony up commensurate fees: the show’s ability to perform on an increasingly competitive night; the compatibility “Men’s” audience has with the audience watching the top sitcoms in syndication; the pre-sold relationship the show has with top advertisers; “Men’s” ratings strength compared with other comedies coming to syndication; and the star power of series lead Charlie Sheen.

Genuine performer
“Men,” which launched on CBS in 2003 in the plum post-“Raymond” 9:30 p.m. time slot, stars Mr. Sheen as a jingle-writing playboy living in Malibu, Calif., who takes in his uptight, recently divorced brother (Jon Cryer) and his brother’s grade-school-age son. Besides being the first show to garner a significant audience in the post-“Raymond” time slot, “Men” is one of a few new comedies on network TV that has been a genuine ratings performer in its time period.

“Last year, when ‘Raymond’ was in its last season, we actually on many occasions did better [in the ratings],” Mr. Robertson said. “We thought, ‘Well, maybe we could go out and sell it because there’s nothing out there. The problem with that is stations may not want to blow their brains out for this thing because they maybe have a little trepidation because it’s not starting the hour.”

With “Raymond” gone this season, “Men” shifted to 9 p.m., a move that could have derailed the show’s ratings.

“It was a risk, but a calculated risk,” Mr. Robertson said of the decision to wait. “We could have been wrong, but fortunately we weren’t.”

Through Nov. 7, “Men” scored a 5.0 in adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s down 13 percent from “Raymond’s” year-ago performance and down 12 percent from “Men’s” own performance last year (5.7 versus 5.0). Despite the declines compared with “Raymond,” Mr. Paratore said, the show’s performance is a strength because it still gets a solid number in a time period that has become much more competitive.

“The tougher it is, the more valuable it is,” Mr. Paratore said.

Stiff competition
Besides contending directly with ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” this season “Men” had the added pressure of going up against the new Fox hit drama “Prison Break,” which has revitalized Fox’s performance in the 9 p.m. hour and given the comedy something its predecessor never had to deal with: head-to-head entertainment programming that competed for young male viewers.

“Last year ‘Raymond’ competed against ‘The Swan,’ which is not exactly ‘Prison Break,’” Mr. Robertson said.

Season to date “Break” has scored a 4.3 in the demo, up 54 percent in the Monday 9 p.m. hour from last year’s “The Swan,” which scored a 2.8.

Being able to work against competition is crucial in syndication, Mr. Robertson said, because “Men” will be airing opposite some of the most successful sitcoms in history.

“It runs against only the best of the best that made it through this tiny little keyhole that gets into syndication,” he said, noting that some high-rated comedies did well on network only to fail in syndication because it was the first time they had real competition.

That level of competition makes “Men” a smart buy on two levels, Mr. Robertson said. If you’re a station, buying the show not only gives you a comedy that will deliver viewers but also keeps a solid performer away from your competitors, who can use the show to chip away at your existing comedy blocks.

“If you don’t buy it, it doesn’t just go away,” he said. “It shows up on another station.”

In with 'Friends'
Warner Bros. research showed the people who watch the top four sitcoms in syndication also make up the majority of the audience watching “Men” on CBS. In fact, Warner Bros. argues that cross-referencing “Men’s” numbers with syndication viewership indicates that 42 percent of “Men’s” prime-time viewers are already watching “Friends” in syndication.

“This points out the fact that ‘Two and a Half Men,’ which is as big of a hit as ‘Raymond,’ is even more compatible to ‘Friends’ and more compatible to ‘Seinfeld’ than ‘Raymond’ was,” Mr. Robertson said.

Asked if during sales pitches he’s demonstrated similar compatibility research before, Mr. Robertson said, “This is the kind of page where usually you don’t have much of a story.”

From an ad perspective, the Warner Bros. pitch lays out the argument that the show is pre-sold. On CBS, 19 of the top 20 advertisers were also 19 of the top 20 spot advertisers in syndication.

“You’re preaching to the choir,” Mr. Robertson said.

There is no question “Men” is being slated to compete with the big boys, including Warner Bros.’ own “Friends,” but Mr. Robertson said the show is up to the challenge.

“What can you buy that is really going to be a guarantee that it’s going to work?” Mr. Robertson said. “And the answer is ‘Nothing.’ But what’s the one that has the least risk that’s the closest thing to a slam-dunk? We think that it’s this show.”

Christopher Lissotta is a reporter for Crain Communications’ Television Week.

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