'Office' Set for 2009 Syndication

NBC Universal encounters tough off-network market with Tribune on sidelines
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NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution has rolled out its two-year-old, critically acclaimed comedy The Office for off-network syndication, making it available for a fall 2009 launch.

A person familiar with the negotiations says that no deals have been completed yet, but there is strong interest and sales activity surrounding the award-winning series. NBCU declined to comment. Other industry sources say that key station and cable buyers have rejected NBCU's high asking price for the niche series appealing to younger males.

According to these people, NBCU sought the standard three 30-second barter spots per episode for The Office, plus a weekly license fee of $145,000 in New York and $125,000 in Los Angeles.

But Tribune failed to bid, and Fox offered a total of just $80,000 for The Office on its MyNetworkTV duopoly stations in New York and Los Angeles, which compares to the estimated $200,000 per week that Tribune doled out for Warner Bros.' broader sitcom, Two and a Half Men.

The Office could perform better in Chicago, however, since Fox's WFLD would need to fend off WCIU. Fox declined to comment on the negotiations.

In cable, the sources say NBCU sought $1 million per episode from TBS and that Turner, which has interest in the show, suggested the syndicator return with a more realistic offer. TBS declined to comment.

Another cable bid, for $400,000, was believed to have come from Comedy Central, which has made no secret of its strong desire to acquire the quirky show. An NBCU insider disputed the accuracy of the numbers, as well as claims that it misread the market by taking out The Office when one of the two major off-net sitcom broadcast buyers, Tribune, lacks the budget and time periods for it now.

Having spent big to double-run Two and a Half Men and Twentieth TV's Family Guy starting in September, Tribune had warned NBCU prior to The Office sales launch that it would wait to see how the new entrants performed this fall before committing to another off-net comedy.

But industry sources say NBCU countered that it was proceeding with or without Tribune and would go market by market in the top 25.

So far, NBCU has shopped The Office in a few places but could face major challenges in Philadelphia and other Tribune markets. The industry will also be watching to see how NBCU does in non-Tribune markets, like Boston and Atlanta.

“It's never a perfect time to take out a show, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding The Office,” says the NBCU insider. “It is a great story. The marketplace has been telling us over the last few months that they are ready.”

After wrapping up two full seasons and a small portion of a third, The Office will have 86 episodes by the end of next season, well over 100 by fall 2009.

The Office, which also appears on digital platforms, has not repeated well on the network. Stations would have to carry six-seven reruns per season with 86 episodes, versus five or less with 100-plus.

Tribune was also said to be concerned about how The Office will perform this fall in its new 9 p.m. Thursday slot against ABC's Grey's Anatomy and CBS' CSI.

Executive Producer Ben Silverman, the new co-chairman of NBC's entertainment and studio wings, says he supports the move to 9 o'clock. He calls The Office a strong counter-programming measure against its female-leaning competitors.

By switching The Office from 8:30 to 9, former NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly hoped to get the promising 30 Rock into a protected time period and use The Office to build momentum in the second primetime hour. If the strategy fails, the network could move The Office back to 8:30 after a couple weeks without losing too much.

Some suspect that NBCU rushed the series into syndication to alleviate worries over its performance at 9. But the NBCU insider maintains the effort was in the planning stages before the time-period change was decided on and that, internally, the move was seen as “a big vote of confidence” in the comedy.

Others think that Steve Carell's long-term commitment may have also played a role. With Universal's upcoming Evan Almighty, Carell should move into the $15 million-$20 million per picture range, versus the $250,000 per episode (and small piece of the back-end profits) he is estimated to get for the TV series.

NBCU has maintained that Carell is committed for the time being and can continue to make one movie each summer while doing the show. Despite repeated denials, there was plenty of chatter that NBCU moved now because it is looking to beef up cash on its books in preparation for a sale or spinoff by parent GE.

A distribution executive outside of the NBCU fold says the show generates the type of water-cooler buzz that Seinfeld did at this point in its life, and a syndication failure would be a “bitter disappointment. It's too good of a show for that.”

Additional reporting by Ben Grossman and Anne Becker

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