The End Of The Back End?

There was once a time when the phrasing “the most wonderful time of the year” meant something more than the reappearing of Christmas lights and specials.  For media researchers and salespeople, the post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas rush period meant the kickoff to many long hours of poring through ratings books and massive floppy disks to develop pitches for shows being sold at NATPE.   The most significant and potentially profitable of those pursuits often involved the sales of reruns of sitcoms to local stations and cable networks, once the “magic threshold” of 100-ish episodes had been reached.

When Warner Brothers absorbed the aggressive and prolific sales team from Lorimar-Telepictures, they had a slew of such comedies available for “stripping” at the same time.  At their peak, as many as six different “new” shows were set to premiere at once, creating the need and opportunity for hundreds of positioning pieces aimed at optimizing the “back end”–where studios and their creatives really made their money.  In more recent years, thanks in large part to the efforts of Chuck Lorre, Warner Brothers was still selling several shows at once, often using later rerun cycles of proven successes to help move newer product whose track records weren’t all that compelling.

Which is why to a seasoned geek like me this story from THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Lesley Goldberg that dropped yesterday was particularly jarring:

CBS on Wednesday announced that its Lorre-produced comedy Bob Hearts Abishola will end with its upcoming fifth season, with the series finale set for May 13.

The comedy starring Billy Gardell and Folake Olowofoyeku joins fellow Lorre-produced series Young Sheldon in coming to a close in 2024. With the conclusion of both shows next year, broadcast comedy kingpin Lorre will have gone from having a two-hour block of four shows on CBS to zero on broadcast.

And for CBS, it will also mean that one more outside supplier beyond their corporate cousin CBS Studios has had another door shut.

With the retirement of this show, there will be 95 episodes that will be available as of this summer; indeed, just about at that once-magic threshold.  But as to who’s most likely to buy, well, that’s another story.

YOUNG SHELDON, which debuted on the coattails of the final season of the megahit it was spun off from, THE BIG BANG THEORY, was sold for 2021 availability just before new regimes took over at both TBS, which was propping up their original comedy business with umpteen reruns of BBT, and stations such as those owned by Tribune, which struggled to compete with BBT in many of their markets where FOX and its duopoly stations controlled syndication rights. FOX subsequently determined that they were far better off developing original, comedy-driven first-run game shows and were largely non-bidders for YOUNG SHELDON.

But YOUNG SHELDON has never delivered even close to the rerun audience that BBT had, or even now has, and now has been downgraded to negligible time slots on a TBS that has all but blown up their original scripted business and on stations now owned by Nexstar that have launched expanded local news and, on WPIX New York, a nightly half-hour sportscast.

And it’s not like Billy Gardell’s track record in reruns is exemplary.  His previous, similarly toned series also from the Lorre camp, MIKE AND MOLLY, ran for five decent but hardly breakthrough seasons as part of one of those CBS lineups, yet was aggressively sold in reruns by a team fueled with a portfolio of shows that included the more exploitable 2 BROKE GIRLS and, of course, BIG BANG.  Aggressive deal-making using movies as bait for cable clients like FX got the show sold, but MIKE AND MOLLY again failed to deliver ratings of consequence.

And while there’s ostensibly niche buyers still out there that specialize in off-network reruns, such as TV LAND and some other Paramount networks, their corporate beancounters are more reluctant than ever to commit significant dollars to anything other than proven titles with much larger inventories.  Entire nights of prime time are devoted to shows like FRIENDS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND and TWO AND A HALF MEN, much like TBS defaults to with BIG BANG and now, on a non-exclusive basis, MODERN FAMILY.  Who needs the “power” of new shows that the Warner Brothers of decades earlier promised its clients?

The irony, of course, is that all of this shakeout is happening just as ol’ Yosemite Zas has cocked his six-shooter squarely at the temple of the executive that remains in charge of what’s left of the once-vaunted distribution team, David Decker, and is demanding he find buyers for content that has outlived its usefulness and amortizability for MAX.  He’s shaken a few nuts from his trees, many to the consternation of pundits like Matt Baloney, who seem to be obsessed with the conspiracy theory that selling off titles connected with the legacy of HBO is counter-intuititve to growing a streaming business.  And no, BOB HEARTS ABISHOLA isn’t quite as tied to either the CBS or the WB brand.  But it’s something of scale, with millions of weekly viewers and, over long-tail measurement, many millions at that.  And now, it’s heading for history.

For CBS, the motivators are clear.  Leasing is less proactive than owning, and it costs more to produce older shows.  To be fair, they’re retiring their own property BLUE BLOODS as well, not to mention sunsetting Sony’s S.W.A.T. which they have co-ownership of.  And this fall by necessity they learned of the potential efficiencies from drawing from their own libraries, especially YELLOWSTONE and even a onetime CBS series like SEAL TEAM that had migrated to Paramount+.

But it’s abundantly clear that the world of anticipated back ends, with intrigued bidders lining up and running their own numbers, is well on its way to becoming a thing of the past.

All is not quite lost just yet.  WB does have clients, for now, at ABC, thanks to ABBOTT ELEMENTARY, and at NBC, with the reboot of NIGHT COURT.  (Incidentally, one of those late 80s/early 90s logjam titles that were shoved down stations’ throats was the original version of the show).   But those are much younger shows where the production cost increases of later seasons hasn’t kicked in yet.  And a direct result of the gains that writers and actors achieved from their strikes is the reality check that fewer shows will be affordable enough to be ordered at all.  So even in success, the potential of these shows getting to a back end of consequence is not yet a sure thing.  And at a lower episode count, less consequential to a volume-centric platform such as MAX.

And some competitors haven’t quite given up the ghost of selling a back end–literally.  In the same news cycle yesterday, THE WRAP’s Lucas Manfredi made an announcement about a salesperson’s promotion:

Lionsgate has promoted domestic television and digital distribution executive vice president Kate Nexon to president of the division.

In her new role, Nexon will oversee North American sales, strategy and planning for the company’s first-run film and television pipelines and library. She will also lead the strategic flow of content through the group’s domestic licensing, rev-share and FAST pipelines in an increasingly complex market.

Priority one for Nexon will be selling rights to the sitcom current CBS executives seem to adore, GHOSTS.  And she will be selling those rights at the same time that her corporate breathren at Debmar-Mercury will be helping her sell another broadcast network hit, as VARIETY’s Michael Schneider reported this summer:

The Conners” is making its way to off-net syndication, as Tom Werner‘s Werner Entertainment has stuck a deal with both Lionsgate Worldwide Television Distribution Group and Debmar-Mercury to distribute the sitcom’s first five seasons (and future seasons as well). “The Conners” will be sold for a fall 2024 launch in domestic syndication.

Under the deal, Lionsgate’s Worldwide Television Distribution Group will oversee international distribution, including SVOD, AVOD, basic cable and FAST rights, while Debmar-Mercury (which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lionsgate) will handle domestic syndication.

“The Conners,” which launched in 2018 as the successor series to “Roseanne” (which had been revived for a season, but then canceled following offensive remarks star Roseanne Barr made on social media), was recently renewed for a sixth season on ABC. The show is ABC’s most-watched comedy, and has already hit 93 episodes — making it a rare new sitcom entrant in the off-network syndication world.

Oh, and even Chuck isn’t quite done.  Tonight, his latest creation, BOOKIE, debuts on MAX, staring the increasingly popular Sebastian Maniscalco, with a much-hyped “reunion” with one-time TWO AND A HALF MEN star Charlie Sheen aiding and abetting.  Two new episodes, by the way.  And thanks to streaming, you don’t even have to miss GHOSTS–well, its UK progenitor, at least.

But because it is streaming, BOOKIE’s first season order is–EIGHT.

In other words, even if it’s as successful as BOB HEARTS ABISHOLA, at this rate, it’ll be ready for bidding sometime in the mid-2030s.

Your guess is as good as mine who will be involved in the buying or the selling of that back end.

Or if those in charge at that point will even know what a back end is…er, was.

Until next time…

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