Debmar-Mercury Snags 'Feud’

Marcus and Bernstein also gain with Payne
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When Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein merged their syndication companies into Debmar-Mercury in March 2005, they planned to sell reruns of Comedy Central’s South Park to stations as a weekday strip—then call it a day.

Debmar-Mercury, which came into last week with three strips, gained a fourth with multi-year distribution rights to FremantleMedia North America game-show strip Family Feud. The deal starts in fall 2007. During the transition, it will work closely with the current distributor, Tribune Entertainment Co. (TEC), on sales. Debmar-Mercury will be looking to improve time periods for Feud, which is celebrating its 30th year on television. It averaged a 2.8 national rating for its multiple daily runs last season.

Marcus, based in Santa Monica, Calif., and Bernstein, in Manhattan, are hopeful their new relationship with Fremantle will mean more shows coming their way. They also represent weekly series The Dead Zone, Farscape and National Geographic’s Really Wild Animals, as well as movie packages from Revolution Studios and Lionsgate.

Despite Debmar-Mercury’s having been acquired by Lionsgate for $27 million, Marcus, a former syndication president at Buena Vista Television, and Bernstein, who once headed Liongate’s worldwide TV distribution efforts, say they’re fairly autonomous.

Until they came along, it had been mostly unheard of for a boutique to have even one strip. With four, they have more than some major studios, including a groundbreaking first-run sitcom, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.

The list also includes a package of VH1 reality series, headlined by The Surreal Life, scheduled for next fall.

PARTNERS WITH PERRY

More strips could be on the way. Once Payne hits broadcast syndication in fall 2008, stations will try out a second sitcom from Perry, whose films include Madea’s Family Reunion. The new comedy, Meet the Browns, is based on his popular play of the same name.

The pair made a splash earlier this year with an unprecedented $200 million deal, with a 100-episode upfront commitment for House of Payne from TBS and stations.

The cable network will gain primetime access to the series in June 2007, followed by stations—led by the Fox-owned outlets in New York, Dallas, Houston and Washington—in September 2008. The deal came after a two-week, 10-market test in various time periods.

Bypassing the traditional network-output system, Perry retained full ownership and creative control. Producing from his Atlanta studio, he will deliver nearly 75 episodes to TBS by fall 2007, with the remaining 25 or so due in time for the syndication launch the next year.

The head of a large syndication company, who spoke on background, calls Payne a “very smart, deal-driven” success story. He credits Debmar-Mercury with finding niches in the marketplace. “They are not putting their own money into it, so there is no downside risk for them,” he says. “It’s not a bad gamble for stations either, since TBS is paying most of the money.”

Indeed, it looks unlikely that Debmar-Mercury will pack up shop any time soon. The Feud acquisition gives it a presence in every key daypart. It also gets the company into a genre that is increasingly popular with syndicators and stations.

Says Marcus, “By being in business, we attract business. We didn’t think that would happen.”

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