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Friends Forever

Sitcoms find new life and lucrative prices on cable 6/13/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

NBC bid its farewell to Friends, but the hit sitcom is poised to live on in cable into the next decade—at a pretty price. Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution is actively shopping a second cable cycle for Friends
to start in 2011. Those close to the negotiations say big cable players, including Nick at Nite, TBS, Oxygen, and Lifetime, are at the table. Some industry execs believe Nick at Nite is the front-runner, but there is no deal yet. Another option: two cable networks sharing the window.

Eric Frankel, Warner Bros. distribution chief, says, "There is extensive interest from several cable networks" but wouldn't name names.

Given the dearth of hit sitcoms, Warner Bros. will demand a premium for Friends. The asking price could approach $1 million per episode. A price tag that insiders believe is too rich for cable players—even for a certified hit. A palatable price, one network executive says, "would not be in that universe."

The deal won't kick off until 2011.

Across cable, channels are on the offensive, gobbling up the good sitcoms. Lifetime recently plunked down $600,000 per episode to buy Frasier
from Paramount, even though it doesn't get the show until 2006.

Both highlight the panic plaguing the syndication market.

Broadcast stations and cable channels need sitcoms to fuel key time slots and drive audiences. But recent seasons have produced few hit comedies. And, as the broadcast networks dump comedy in favor of reality, less sitcoms are surviving long enough to see syndication. Faced with such scarcity, buyers are willing to up the ante.

Even if Warner Bros. doesn't get a sky-high price, the distributor should nab a dramatic increase since the first Friends
cable deal. TBS added the former Peacock hit in 2001 for about $300,000 per episode. The next cycle will kick off in seven years, in time for Friends' third broadcast syndication window.

Cable's most watched show is Warner Bros.' Full House
on Nick at Nite. Among adults 18-49, Seinfeld
and Friends
are the two most popular sitcoms. These shows and King World's Everybody Loves Raymond
are among the marquee off-net comedies—and they don't come cheap.

Consider Sony Pictures Television's latest Seinfeld
deal. The syndicator inked a third-cycle pact with stations that matched stellar second-round prices, bringing in about $4 million per episode plus barter.

That means Seinfeld
could rake in $3 billion in license fees and ad revenue after three cycles. TBS pays about $1 million per episode for Seinfeld
through 2011. (Last spring, it extended the deal five years through 2011.) The network will add Everybody Loves Raymond
for a four-year tour in July. The deal is said to be worth about $500,000 an episode. The next Raymond
cable deal might fetch as much if not more.

Hour dramas usually command $1 million-plus per episode in cable syndication. With sitcoms, cable channels have to wait out three years of exclusivity on broadcast stations before they get a turn, which lowers the asking price.

One recent exception is HBO's Sex and the City. TBS gets an exclusive 15-month window, which begins Tuesday, until the show moves into a shared window with stations.

Other A-list shows are coming to cable, including Warner Bros.' Will & Grace,
which joins the Lifetime roster in fall 2005. FX is paying $600,000 per episode for Twentieth Television's Malcolm in the Middle
to start in 2006 and $490,000 for Carsey-Werner-Mandabach's That '70s Show,
for fall 2005.

March