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Cable-to-Cable Is Next Big Thing

MacDonald: dearth of lead-ins for originals boosts interest in off-nets 7/12/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

The cable market
for top off-network programs this summer is almost as hot as New York's steamy
sidewalks. Twentieth Television's Steve MacDonald, executive VP and general sales manager of basic
cable, has been behind three of those deals. In three weeks, MacDonald and his
team closed deals for rookie network hits Glee, Modern Family and The
Cleveland Show
. Modern Family is headed to NBC Universal's USA for a
reported $1.4 million an episode, Glee to NBCU's Oxygen for $500,000 an
episode, and Cleveland to TBS and Adult Swim for a similar price.

MacDonald talked to B&C's Paige Albiniak about
what's driving the market and off-net syndication's next big thing. An edited
transcript of the interview follows.

Why is the cable market for off-nets so active right
now?

If you are a potential buyer and you need programming
for 2012, '13 and '14, you are saying, "Holy cow, we have challenges if we want
to buy a hit to drive all of these originals we have planned."

Several things have happened at the broadcast networks that
have created a limited supply. The WB and UPN merged into The CW. NBC cut back
at 8 p.m., and then got out of the 10 p.m. business. CBS has been so successful
that there's not much left to sell off from that network. And while ABC has had
success with shows such as Dancing With the Stars and Grey's Anatomy,
there hasn't been anything new to sell there until this past season.

If you are one of the big
five cable networks and you really delve in and take that micro approach, you
see that there's not a lot out there. That drives the price and the pace of
acquisitions.

Most of last year's broadcast hits have been sold to
cable networks. What's next?

The next marketplace that will be recognized is the
basic cable-to-basic cable market. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,
which is off-FX, premiered on Comedy Central at the end of May to very strong
numbers.

When that show starts
airing on cable five days a week, it suddenly becomes much easier to catch a
few episodes. Look at Reba, which went to Lifetime off The WB. A lot of
people were afraid of that show because it came off The WB and didn't have big
ratings behind it. But it ended up being one of cable's [top] sitcoms when it
went to Lifetime. I think Sunny will be the first step toward more basic
cable-to-basic cable sales.

USA made a preemptive bid for Modern Family, essentially forcing the market to go much earlier
than expected. Is that a precedent?

It's not actually the first time that's happened.
What has changed things is that the basic cable market for movie packages has
been preemptive for a couple of years, and that's bled into the series side. In
the case of movies, a network will often pick up a studio's entire slate for
$100 million or $150 million without even seeing how the movies do at the box
office. Why can't you do that on the series side? 

We
just saw USA enter the sitcom business in a major way with its purchase of
Modern Family. Should that surprise us?

USA
wants to broaden its brand and its reach. USA was built on the backs of off-net
acquisitions such as NCIS and House; now, they want to do the
same thing to launch original sitcoms. They want to develop single-camera
sitcoms, in the vein of Modern Family, that look like they belong on the
network, just like their dramas do.

There's
been some question about how Modern Family performs in repeats. How do you
think it will fare in syndication?

On
ABC, Modern Family is in an incredibly challenging time period on
Wednesday at 9 p.m., and it doesn't have a lead-in. What would Modern Family's
ratings look like if it had a Two and a Half Men lead-in and was
sandwiched between that and CSI: Miami? Modern Family has been
handicapped because it hasn't been in a sitcom environment.

The
same question goes for
Glee:
Dramas tend to not repeat well. How do you think
Glee will do?

I
really believe in my heart of hearts that Glee will do well. Because of
how the show is built, with story followed by performance followed by story,
it's something that people will want to see again and again. The show's music
is so wide and so pervasive, and the characters are so easily defined, that
anyone can jump into any episode. 

Part
of the
Glee
deal allowed you to also sell Oxygen a
Glee-based reality show, which
isn't a typical part of an off-net sale. How did you guys do that?

That
was really a company-wide collaborative effort in terms of making that
available in the cable market, because the producers, Twentieth Century Fox
Television, Fox and us all had to be on board for that to work.

E-mail comments to palbiniak@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

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