But it may be too soon to tell whether recent offerings-especially strong sitcoms, with their desirable demographic ratings but expensive licensing and advertising price tags-will attract network affiliate stations and marketers.
"It's nice to see successful off-network sitcoms like 'Mad About You' or 'Seinfeld' in there, and shows like 'Frasier' coming next season are likely to hit that particular time period," says Peter Chrisanthopoulos, president-broadcast & programming USA, Ogilvy & Mather, New York.
But, he adds, off-net sitcoms "have been at a premium and from that standpoint, some advertisers have said that it's just too expensive and they're not going to play ball there."
The prime-time access rule prevented a top 50 market's network affiliates, usually among the strongest stations in any given market, from airing reruns of successful network sitcoms in the hour before prime time. The rule was rescinded last summer.
Licensing fees and advertising time have become more expensive for recent top-notch off-network sitcoms. Warner Bros.' "Friends," which makes its syndication debut next year, was on pace to break the record $4 million per episode fee, set by "The Cosby Show."
Meanwhile, according to an Advertising Age/Electronic Media survey, a national 30-second spot on "Home Improvement" or "Seinfeld" costs more than $100,000, much more than "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," which have dominated access for years (see chart on Page S-5).
Chris Kager, VP-marketing & sales at Columbia TriStar Advertising Sales, which sells commercial time for the off-net run of "Seinfeld," says spots in the show are expensive for good reason.
"It's just delivering better value. It's delivering better value for the stations, and quite frankly better value for the advertisers," Mr. Kager says. "If we can deliver these type numbers for 'Seinfeld' in syndication that are comparable to prime time, we've given the advertiser one more alternative in the marketplace."
HANDLED SHOW BY SHOW
Unlike prime time, when networks offer advertisers a bundle of spots from both high-interest and low-demand shows, syndicators offer commercials on a show-by-show basis.
"So we really do offer advertisers quality of program and environment in which they want to be in," Mr. Kager says.
Off-net comedies have traditionally aired on stations not affiliated with the Big 3.If a sitcom and a magazine show draw the same ratings among adult women, the sitcom is likely to also be attracting a similar rating among male viewers.
"You're able to bring that ancillary audience, in essence bonusing the advertisers," says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming at Katz Television Group.
There's also a content issue, because some advertisers who won't go into traditional access programming, such as magazine shows, are comfortable with off-net sitcoms.
"It's blue-chip network [TV] advertisers who are now buying 'Seinfeld' in syndication and who see the value," Mr. Kager says.
Mr. Kager is convinced other sitcoms coming down the pike will perform as well as "Seinfeld" has.
But other observers say that despite the success of "Seinfeld" and "Home Improvement" in syndication, it's unclear how many other network affiliates will jump into the sitcom pool.
"I think affiliates are going to be very slow to spend a lot of money on off-network shows because it's not clear they can make their nut back over the life of the show," says Tim Duncan, executive director of the Advertiser Syndicated Television Association. "Yes, off-net shows come with a proven track record, but not all off-net shows succeed."
'COSBY' NOT A POWERHOUSE
Mr. Duncan notes that "The Cosby Show" drew record prices in syndication but never was the ratings powerhouse envisioned by the stations that carried it. And when shows don't perform, Mr. Duncan says, network affiliates have few places on their schedules to put them.
Mr. Carroll also expects network affiliates to move slowly.
"I think based on the stations that have already acquired product for next year, you're going to see more of them," Mr. Carroll says.
But, he adds, "You're not going to see a lot of that in the largest of markets because in the largest of markets, the sitcom goes where it always has gone, the non-traditional affiliate." In those markets, the network affiliates compete against strong stations owned by Fox, Tribune Co. or Chris Craft Industries.
"Even if a traditional affiliate wanted to do a 'Friends' deal in a major market, the deal was done with Tribune," Mr. Carroll says. there isn't a great deal of experience with how much of an impact sitcoms will have on prime access.
"[The prime-time access rule] went away a lot faster than most people had anticipated, and because of that, either existing contracts or the lack of available product really didn't allow stations to react to that change," Mr. Carroll says. "We are just starting to see the middle-tier markets that had a possibility of acquiring something like 'Mad About You,' and it's early in the books so it's hard to tell."
Mr. Lafayette is New York bureau chief for Electronic Media.