Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein — proprietors of the upstart syndication firm, Debmar-Mercury - are big fans of running an on-air, at-length test before launching a program into syndication. Today, Debmar-Mercury announced the deal that could convert everyone else in the TV biz to their way of thinking. The company will try its next test with two of the most sought-after comedy talents in Hollywood: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Ferrell is one of Saturday Night Live’s biggest breakout stars - taking his place alongside Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler and Tina Fey. McKay is a former SNL writer and now Ferrell’s writing and producing partner. The two are joined in their production company, Gary Sanchez Productions, by Chris Henchy, a notable producer in his own right and also the lucky husband of Brooke Shields.
“Will, Adam and Chris have had so much success on television, in the movies, with their Web site Funny or Die and with Will’s Broadway show [”You’re Welcome America”]. We have to believe we’ll have the same level of success here,” says David Bernath, Comedy Central’s senior vice president of programming.
Ferrell, McKay and Henchy are writing and producing a sitcom starring Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite and Blades of Glory. Ferrell will work both behind the scenes and also occasionally appear on camera. Comedy Central was thrilled to sign on as Debmar-Mercury’s partner this time around, agreeing to air ten episodes next summer. If the show surpasses a certain ratings barrier, Comedy Central’s on the hook for the next 90, but the network doesn’t seem worried.
“It’s really exciting to think we could create our own off-network sitcom with these guys,” says Michele Ganeless, president of Comedy Central, the home of such stars as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Comedy Central has been on an acquisitions roll lately: On Tuesday, word leaked that Comedy Central had purchased NBC Universal’s 30 Rock in a joint cable deal with Tribune’s WGN America that amounts to $800,000 an episode.
For the first ten episodes, Comedy Central will pay a license fee and Debmar-Mercury will finance the production. If the next 90 episodes get picked up, the show will likely return to the air in January 2011, and the financial onus will shift to Comedy Central, which will continue to pay a per-episode license fee. If all of that goes well, the show will premiere in broadcast syndication in fall 2012.
It’s no accident that Debmar-Mercury is behind another show that’s structured like this. After the success of both Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and then Meet the Browns, Marcus and Bernstein made a point of meeting every agent and manager in Hollywood to “explain the Tyler Perry model to everyone,” says Marcus. “Over time, some of the agents have started to come to us with people who were a little more interesting. That ultimately got us into a conversation with Will and Adam. There’s not that many people we’d be able to try this with, but Will and Adam are certainly two of them.”
This will be the fourth such test that Debmar-Mercury has run. The first two Perry shows were with TBS, and last summer, the company ran a six week test of its new first-run talk show, The Wendy Williams Show, on Fox stations in four markets. That show launches nationally on Monday.
“In general, the test model is where our heads are,” says Marcus. “We think Tyler Perry is a god and we think Will and Adam have a chance to do what he’s done.”
Debmar-Mercury has proved that syndication - indeed television - can be done in a different way. Now we want to know: What’s next?