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Non-hit TV shows get a lifeline on the Web

COMPANY TOWN : TELEVISION

Streaming services give a lift to programs that wouldn't have made it into reruns.

December 31, 2011|Meg James
  • Chevy Chase and Alison Brie, left, joke with Joel McHale, right, between scenes of NBC's "Community" last year. The comedy has had a less than stellar viewership, but is going into syndication.
Chevy Chase and Alison Brie, left, joke with Joel McHale, right, between… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

"Community," NBC's quirky Thursday night comedy, has been a slacker in the ratings.

The sitcom about misfit community college students, starring Joel McHale and Chevy Chase, has averaged about 4 million viewers an episode this season, not enough to guarantee survival in the dog-eat-dog world of network television. The tepid ratings prompted NBC to put the show on hiatus. Still, despite its struggles, the series is headed toward the promised land of syndication.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 06, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
TV shows on Web: A Dec. 31 Business section article about streaming services giving a lift to programs that wouldn't have made it into reruns said CBS Corp. and the cable channel TV Land are both owned by Viacom Inc. In fact, CBS and Viacom are separate companies, though both are controlled by media mogul Sumner Redstone.

Just a few years ago, a syndication sale for a modest performer like "Community" would have been unthinkable. Only the most popular and durable network comedies, such as "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory," which this season are each drawing more than 15 million viewers an episode, were a lock for syndication, the corner of the business where the big money is made. In the past, TV executives would have to wait until a series made it to a fourth season -- putting it close to the magic number of 100 episodes -- before gearing up their syndication pitches to TV station groups and cable channels hungry for network reruns.

But earlier this month, the online video service Hulu announced that it was acquiring the Internet rights to "Community," which is co-produced by Sony Pictures Television and NBCUniversal. The cable channel Comedy Central, owned by Viacom Inc., also has been in talks to license reruns of "Community." That syndication deal, if consummated, could persuade NBC to bring back the show, which costs about $2 million an episode to produce, for a fourth season.

"'Community' has not been a wild ratings success, but it is a show that people really love and they tell 10 other people about it," said Andy Forssell, Hulu's senior vice president for content acquisition. "It is a good fit for online audiences, and in today's digital and aggregated universe, shows like that can survive and thrive."

Television production studio executives long have been wary of Hulu and other forms of Internet distribution, fearing they would lead to increased piracy and destroy lucrative secondary markets, including syndication and DVD sales. But video streaming services offered by Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.com are becoming an unexpected boon to the TV syndication market. By writing checks to license library content from networks, the Internet services are injecting new revenue into the TV business and breathing new life into middling shows.

"The introduction of the subscription video-on-demand platform has broadened the opportunities for exploitation of product in a very positive way for consumers and studios," said Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. domestic television distribution. "You do not need to accumulate 100 episodes of a series because 40 hours of programming is a lot, so many of these shows work perfectly well on these new services."

Netflix in November announced that it planned to restart production of another cult favorite, Fox's "Arrested Development," which won an Emmy for best comedy but lasted just three seasons before being canceled in 2006. Netflix was drawn to the series because of its young, affluent and fervent fan base.

Hulu saw some of the same attributes with the younger-skewing, computer-connected crowd that has been rallying to save "Community." Just before Christmas, a cluster of "Community" fans wearing paper goatees gathered outside NBC's corporate headquarters in Manhattan to sing a "Community"-inspired Christmas carol.

"It is great that content owners can look at us as an additional buyer in the marketplace," Hulu's Forssell said. "That's going to help shows continue on the air and be profitable, whereas a few years ago some of these same shows would not have survived."

Scott Koondel, distribution president for CBS Television Distribution, said the proliferation of mobile devices, including smartphones and digital tablets, also has helped to invigorate the market.

"People want to consume television in different ways and there are now so many different platforms," Koondel said. "We have more places to market our shows. These opportunities weren't available to us two or three years ago."

One fledgling network is getting a boost too. The CW, which targets a female audience aged 12 to 34, has struggled since it launched in 2006 to attract a large fan base. The broadcast service -- a joint venture of CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Entertainment -- has failed to turn a profit. But this fall, the CW sold reruns of its prime-time hourlong programs, including "The Vampire Diaries" and "Gossip Girl," to Netflix and Hulu -- moves that could finally lift the network onto more secure financial footing.

To be sure, the syndication market continues to be dominated by big network hits such as "Two and a Half Men," "Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory." Those top-tier comedies can command as much as $5 million an episode in syndication. Niche comedies, such as NBC's "30 Rock," can earn between $1 million and $2 million an episode in syndication.

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