Any series can find immortality on cable

December 24, 1993|By Elizabeth Kolbert | Elizabeth Kolbert,New York Times News Service

Remember "The Immortal," a series about a race-car driver whose antibodies made him immune to aging? How about "The Duck Factory," about a wacky group of animators who produced a cartoon show called "Dippy Duck"?

No? Well, there's a good reason. Both of these television series were canceled within a year and, by most viewers at least, probably weren't missed. Now, however, like Stephen King characters who refuse to stay dead, these series are back, revived not so much by popular demand as by new cable channels frantic for programming.

Indeed, any series is a candidate for revival these days, no matter how obscure, offbeat or short-lived.

"Almost anything that has ever had a previous life is going to have another life," says Bob Seidelman, president of Teleworld Inc., an independent distribution company. "The fact is that new cable networks have opened up a whole new avenue for product."

The Sci-Fi Channel, an offshoot of USA Networks, is a good example. In addition to "The Immortal," it has purchased the rights to "The Invisible Man," a British series that was on CBS during the 1958-59 season; "The Phoenix," a 1982 ABC series about a messenger from an alien world; and "Something Is Out There," a 1988 NBC series about a beautiful alien and a mortal policeman. "The Phoenix" ran for half a season; "Something Is Out There" lasted only seven weeks.

The channel broadcasts such series one episode a night until they run out; then it moves to the next series. (After several months, the cycle is repeated.) "It's one of our most popular formats," says Barry Schulman, the Sci-Fi Channel's vice president for programming. On occasion, he says, the channel gets episodes that never ran on broadcast stations because the series was canceled before they could be shown.

Similarly, Comedy Central has brought back several sitcoms. Besides "The Duck Factory," which ran on NBC in early 1984, the comedy channel has purchased "The Famous Teddy Z," a CBS series from 1989-90 about a mailroom clerk who becomes a Hollywood agent.

The appetite of cable channels like Sci-Fi and Comedy Central for old shows has increased the value of studio libraries. But don't expect the studios to become any less obsessed with producing hits. There is simply not enough money in selling to small cable channels to have a significant effect on the economics of television production.

"The only thing this does is bring in some revenues that at one time were not counted on," says Sid Cohen, president of domestic television distribution for MGM. "It's not going to be a windfall."

Studios depend on syndicated reruns to make their shows profitable. Often, the licensing fees paid by the networks for a series -- for the original broadcast and one rerun -- are not enough to cover the production costs, so many new television shows are financed by the studios at a deficit. The studios hope to cover the deficits at the "back end" by syndicating the show (if it turns out to be a hit) to broadcast stations. The stations want to "strip" the shows -- broadcast them in the same time slot, five nights a week -- and, to avoid too many repeats of the repeats, they usually want at least 100 episodes.

Over time, a top-rated show sold in syndication nationwide can reap several million dollars for each episode. "The Cosby Show," for example, brought almost $5 million an episode in syndication. In contrast, a series that survived for less than a season might go for $20,000 an episode.

"I'm not going to produce a show that's a flop so I can sell it to cable," says Dennis McAlpine, a media analyst for Josephthal, Lyon & Ross. "It's like trying to put a bucket under a gusher."

By the law of supply and demand, series like "The Duck Factory" that are of interest only to cable channels are going to bring a lot less money than reruns of shows like "L.A. Law" (now on Lifetime) that might also interest broadcast stations. But there is another reason why cable channels can acquire programs at a lower cost. Because of the way most of the series' original contracts were written, cable channels pay much lower residuals than broadcast stations do. (Residuals are payments to the cast and creators every time the program is shown.) "That can save you $100,000 per episode," Mr. McAlpine says.

Even among cable channels, especially the more established HTC ones, there is a preference for shows that lasted longer than a few weeks. Nick at Nite, for example, which has turned reruns into a veritable genre, will only buy shows with several dozen episodes.

like "The Partridge Family" (96 episodes), "Get Smart" (99) and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (158).

In its early years, Lifetime bought programs like "Lady Blue," about a female cop in Chicago; the ABC series ran about a dozen weeks in 1985. But now that the channel is more popular, it goes for the hits, like NBC's "L.A. Law," now in its eighth season of production and NBC's "Sisters," now in its third season, and ABC's "Thirtysomething," which lasted four seasons.

To be sure, stripping a show like "Thirtysomething' still means plenty of repeated episodes. But Lifetime prefers not to think of it that way. "They're never reruns," says Doug McCormick, Lifetime's president and chief operating officer. "We refer to them as encore performances."

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