Keeping up with the Seinfelds

Friends seeks the same record-breaking license fees for its second time around

For the second cycle of Friends reruns, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution is asking for the same record-breaking license fee that Seinfeld grabbed its second time out, sources say.

To get the second Friends cycle, most likely available in 2004, stations would have to ante up about $350,000 per week in top markets New York and Los Angeles, about 30% more than the $275,000 Warner Bros. wanted the first time around on Friends in those cities. In many markets, the margin of increase is said to be well over 50%

It's not hard to understand why Warner Bros. thinks the sitcom is worth it: Friends consistently ranks as the highest-rated off-net series.

Columbia TriStar Television Distribution raked in $4 million an episode, or $600 million, for Seinfeld's second cycle.

If its pitch clicks with stations, Warner Bros. stands to make a ton of money. When you add in barter advertising revenue, Columbia TriStar has taken in close to $2 billion over its two Seinfeld cycles.

But that's still an "if" at this point. Apparently, several outlets are balking, including Friends' primary habitat, Tribune Broadcasting and many Fox-owned stations that are heavy sitcom buyers.

"The terms that they put forth in the initial go-around were way out of whack with what he was willing to pay," claims Garnett Losak, programming director for Blair Television, referring to the chief of a mid-market group that carries Friends. "The group is most interested in owning the show, but whether or not the deal makes sense is another issue."

Warner Bros. executives declined to comment.

No one can argue the fact that Friends has regularly beaten Seinfeld ratings-wise since it debuted in syndication, most recently scoring a 6.2 vs. Seinfeld's 5.3 during February sweeps, according to Nielsen Media Research's household results. "It's Warner Bros.' job to be as aggressive as possible," Losak acknowledges. "The stations' job is to get the show with the greatest value possible. So, between those two missions, they'll have to come to an agreement."

Moreover, few syndication insiders believe Warner Bros. won't be able to pen a deal for Friends, which is still considered a bonanza for stations. Friends' most recent sweeps score was just 7% below its performance for February 2000 (6.7).

"Is it a solid performer?" asks Katz TV's Bill Carroll. "Yes. I don't think anyone will disagree."

Still, Losak says several stations aren't acting is if they have to order a second helping of Friends, which is different from the way they hungrily eyed another batch of Seinfeld in 1998.

For one thing, " Seinfeld in its first cycle was very under-exposed," just this year getting packaged with a double-run option. But stations "are concerned about the amount of exposure Friends has had," Losak adds. "In its second cycle, it will not only have double runs," widely practiced during its initial cycle, "but will also have cable exposure on TBS beginning late this year."

In fact, come 2004, when the Friends
'second cycle is expected to start (contingent on original episodes' ending on NBC), TBS will have been spotlighting the series for three years. Seinfeld won't land on TBS until fall 2002.

Reportedly, Warner Bros. is hoping to lock up the second cycle of Friends before its potential value-lessening cable debut on TBS, similar to Columbia TriStar's thinking in 1998.

But Tribune might not be in a very big hurry, since it's expecting a healthy load of sitcoms in the next several years, including high-profile Everybody Loves Raymond this fall and Will & Grace in fall 2002.

However, the consolidation of owners may be worrying Warner Bros. The likely partnership between the Fox and Chris-Craft groups under News Corp. will drive down prices.

"There will be potentially less demand," says Katz TV's Carroll, noting that Tribune dropped out of the Seinfeld second-cycle bidding war in New York and Los Angeles, losing out to Fox-owned WNYW-TV and Chris-Craft-operated KCOP-TV, respectively.