Seeking Serial Success

'24' and 'Alias' face off-net challenge to keep viewers tuned in

On their respective action dramas, Kieifer Sutherland's Jack Bauer and Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow seem to save the world almost weekly. But can they save the battered track record of serialized dramas in syndication when 24 and Alias launch this fall?

While both shows are coming off successful seasons and critical acclaim on Fox and ABC, respectively, each has a format whose story arcs often run for several episodes, if not an entire season. That has usually spelled trouble in the syndication world.

“I've never had a meeting about selling a serialized drama when the buyer didn't have tremendous concerns about the format,” says one syndication executive. “You just always run into a brick wall as a result of the track record of these types of shows.”

Which is part of the reason the two shows commanded relatively small license fees. A&E paid around $250,000 per episode for 24, and TNT ponied up about $200,000 an episode for Alias, according to industry insiders. (By comparison, B&C previously reported that the Spike network paid $1.35 million per episode of non-serial Without a Trace in fall 2003). Alias and 24 were sold in all-barter deals to local stations.

All that said, 24 seems well positioned to challenge the trend when its first season debuts in syndication Oct. 2 in 97% of the country.

Twentieth TV, which produces the series, can build on a strong 2004-05 season: 24 enjoyed a 20% ratings jump from a year ago, winning its Monday 9 p.m. time slot for the year in the male 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 demos.

“The last season got a lot of people hooked,” says Twentieth TV President Bob Cook, “so we are hoping they'll jump at the chance to catch up with what they missed from the beginning.”

To help combat the challenge of the serialized format, 24 will be double-run in most markets, meaning the same episode will be seen on both Saturday and Sunday nights. “Running it twice a weekend is a good move,” says another syndication exec. “They'll have to promote the heck out of it, but the goal is to find a new audience, and running it twice makes sense to help them follow the story.”

The move, though, is a calculated risk, because it also means most viewers won't watch both episodes, which could result in a lower combined number over the two nights, a key to ad sales in the barter market.

Twentieth will try to keep viewers in touch with the plot. The studio will put the 60- to 90-second video clips that run before each show online so viewers can catch up on what happened in recent episodes.

Twentieth will build its promos around both the double runs and the online clips. Says Cook, “We just want to make sure the audience will have enough opportunities to stay in sync.”

The studio is also targeting drama viewers who may not watch Fox. One way is by pairing 24 with juggernaut CSI in most major markets.

On cable, A&E will launch 24 with a Labor Day-weekend marathon, before it settles into a regular pattern, which the network says it has not yet finalized.

Catching Alias on a Roll

Buena Vista, which produces Alias, won't comment on its off-net launch, but it faces a similar challenge to Twentieth's with
24. Cleared in 98% of the country, the much-talked-about Alias debuts in weekend broadcast syndication on Sept. 19 and then on TNT Sept. 24, where it will run nightly at 6 p.m.

Early on, Alias had complex plotlines, but they've been simplified in later iterations. And Alias and Garner had a strong year. The show logged its most-watched season, averaging 10.3 million viewers. Emmy-nominated Garner is also a box- office draw, especially given her highly publicized marriage to Ben Affleck. So the show heads to syndication with buzz.

Even so, both of these strong new entrants must fight the curse of serialized dramas in syndication.