Monday, April 07, 2008

Syndication Performance

I was looking through the 1984 book "Television Comedy Series: An Episode Guide to 153 TV Sitcoms in Syndication," by Joel Eisner and David Krinsky. (Jerry Beck, back when he was working in TV catalogue sales for United Artists, is credited as one of their sources for the information.)

The book was useful at the time, when episode titles and writing credits were hard to find for most shows; it's been rendered obsolete by the passing of time and the availability of online episode guides. Also, the authors have a bizarre rant in their introduction about how badly television has declined since it started in with social issues and stuff. ("Television banned violence on network shows when they thought it was harmful to children, but did they ever stop to think what mental harm is done when a child believes prostitution, vasectomies, unwed mothers, V.D. etc. are all hilarious subjects?") However, one thing that Eisner and Krinsky have in many of their descriptions, which I find interesting, is a description of how the show did in syndication. (They got some of their information on the shows from TV stations and syndicators, so along with the episode lists they were presumably also able to find out how these shows were doing in reruns, or if they were even being rerun at all.) I thought I'd make a note of some of their descriptions to show how some shows were doing circa 1983 when they were writing this.

I don't know how accurate their information is, but I would suspect that it's fairly close to the mark because it mostly confirms things that were known already: all of the MTM comedies except WKRP performed disappointingly in syndication; Happy Days and its spinoffs all tanked in syndication but The Odd Couple was a huge syndication success; some of the Norman Lear comedies didn't do as well as expected.

One thing that's obvious, once again, is that there is no relationship between how popular a show is in first-run and how popular it is in syndication. Part of the reason is that syndication audiences tend to be younger (a bigger percentage of children is watching in daytime reruns than in prime time), but that can't be the whole explanation for every success or failure. Also it seems like shows that focused on women didn't do well in syndication at the time, though I think that's probably changed since then.

Barney Miller - "The series still does extremely well in syndication."

The Beverly Hillbillies - "The now-syndicated episodes are popular in many Southern cities but not elsewhere, perhaps because it is felt to be so out of date."

The Bob Newhart Show - "The series was very popular during its original run, but it has been a failure in syndication. It now usually runs during the middle of the night or early afternoon."

The Brady Bunch - "Remains one of the most popular reruns of all time."

Chico and the Man - "The series has all but died in syndication even though it is still run all over the country. This is due to the death of Freddie Prinze during the series. What makes matters worse is that now that Jack Albertson has also died, the series is in worse trouble. Within a few years, the show will probably disappear from the air completely."

The Dick Van Dyke Show - "The show was a big hit during the first years of its syndication. However, it has died out in popularity because of its dated look -- caused by the black and white film and fashions of that time."

Family Affair - "The series is still run occasionally but has become too dated for many people and has begun to disappear from many stations."

The Flintstones - "It is still a big hit over twenty years since it was first created, as it can never become dated."

Gilligan's Island - "Despite contemptuous reviews by critics... Gilligan's Island has remained one of the most successful syndicated comedy series of all time."

Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. - "Still a popular series today, Gomer Pyle's main audience is in rural areas of the U.S."

Happy Days - "The reruns have not done very well at all. Syndicated under the title Happy Days Again, it has been a big disappointment to the local stations which run the show."

The Jeffersons - "The series is not doing as well as it was expected to do."

Laverne and Shirley - "The series is still doing well on the network, but it is a complete failure in reruns despite the fact that it is running all over the country."

Mary Tyler Moore - "This was a very popular series during its rrun, but has suffered in syndication. This is also a more sophisticated series which fails to attract the attention of children."

Maude - "It has done very poorly in syndication."

Mork and Mindy - "It entered syndication in September 1983 and immediately died."

Nanny and the Professor - "Seen frequently on small rural stations (mainly UHF) but rarely in large cities."

The Odd Couple - "The series did fairly well on the network but is a big hit in syndication."

What's Happening! - "It didn't do very well on the network, but it is doing rather well in syndication."

Other shows that did well in syndication include:

The Addams Family
Get Smart
Green Acres
Hogan's Heroes
I Dream of Jeannie
I Love Lucy
Leave it to Beaver
The Munsters
Three's Company
Welcome Back Kotter
WKRP in Cincinnati.

Shows that didn't do well in syndication (as of this book):
Diff'rent Strokes
Here's Lucy
McHale's Navy
Our Miss Brooks
The Patty Duke Show


Anonymous said...

McHALE'S NAVY had been in syndication for nearly twenty years at that point, and perhaps had lost some viewers for its preponderance of b&w certainly had received wide and sustained airing in the late '60s/early '70s. STAR TREK was probably past its peak by that time, and that was before THE NEXT GENERATION began (I noted you didn't make a specific mention of ST). WKRP, which was widely unseen in its spotty network run, probably got a bump from those seeing it for the first time (and being a genuinely good show) but it disappeared along with most of the other MTM shows rather quickly.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

McHALE'S NAVY had been in syndication for nearly twenty years at that point, and perhaps had lost some viewers for its preponderance of b&w episodes... it certainly had received wide and sustained airing in the late '60s/early '70s.

Right; the entry in the book also explains (I don't know if this is true) that WWII shows weren't popular in syndication. (I guess M*A*S*H had the advantage that it was really not so much about Korea as a generic war that could have been anywhere, any time.)

STAR TREK was probably past its peak by that time, and that was before THE NEXT GENERATION began (I noted you didn't make a specific mention of ST).

The book is about comedies, so it doesn't mention any hour-long shows. Star Trek was still pretty big in syndication in the '80s as I recall.

Anonymous said...

Because Eisner and Krinsky didn't bother to number the shows in the episode guides, it's easy to overlook the fact that many of them are incomplete, even if just by one or two episodes. Other series, The Lucy Show is one that springs to mind, had their episodes listed in a relatively random order, bearing no relationship to the order in which they were aired either on the network or in syndication.

Even with those criticisms, I'll be the first to admit that the book was invaluable at the time it was published.

VP81955 said...

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" had limited success in New York as a late-afternoon syndicated show, but when WNBC-TV put two episodes on at 1:30 a.m., following Tom Snyder around 1980, it became a huge success among night owls. So much so, in fact, that when WNBC moved the failed "Toni Teneille Show" to 1:30 and pushed "Mary" back to 2:30, the outcry from Maryphiles was such that WNBC flipped the schedule and brought "Mary" back to 1:30 and 2.

Anonymous said...

Of course, if WW2 shows were all failures, HOGAN'S HEROES wouldn't've done well. I have a feeling that the book was to some extent off the top of the head...or at best a better snapshot of the circumstances of the time than a history of the past couple of decades.

I must admit I densely managed to forget they were focused on sitcoms.

Anonymous said...

Back in the early '90s, I took a course in tv production, and it was taught by a local tv station manager. I remember him telling the class that when the Cosby Show became available for syndication, his station signed on for whatever huge amount of money they had to pay.

The show tanked in the ratings. He chalked it up to misreading what the public wants, and I think he was right. The show should have done well, but maybe the times had changed quicker than anybody thought they would.

J Lee said...

In New York, with three independent stations with loads of time to fill, shows like McHale's Navy or The Patty Duke Show held on a lot longer, even if they were no longer accorded the main syndication slots of the time (5-8 p.m. and 11-midnight). Other cities, with either fewer or no independent stations up until the late 70s or early 80s would be more likely to change shows every year or so, with only the mega-hit syndication shows hanging on for multi-year runs.

The book also shows how a sitcom could become a pop culture phenomenon for several years and fool station operators when it came time to bid on those shows for syndication. Something like the hype over The Fonz could send the first-run ratings for "Happy Days" through the roof, but once the wave has crested, people start looking at the same episodes for the third or fourth time when they go off-network, then wonder "Why did I ever think this was good?", and switch to another channel (the interesting thing about this show was it went into syndication at the same time as M*A*S*H when both shows were about equally as popular on network, but bombed right off the bad in the fall of '79, while M*A*S*H was a hit from the start. But "Happy Days" still lasted for five more seasons on ABC even after the syndication disaster).

MLO said...

I'm a little confused about The Beverly Hillbillies as I don't know of any show - except Gilligan's Island - that is more beloved (but denied) by those who enjoy really good comedy.

It is the only show that can still make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I have seen it in syndication. I also know that there are tons of people begging for a real DVD release of this comedy classic.

Maybe I am dating myself? But, how do you explain that even old Simpsons cartoons are going to be in syndication forever and ever?

Larry Levine said...

Happy Days tanked in NYC syndication because by the early 80's WPIX Channel 11 would only show the first three post-Ron Howard later season episodes over & over & over--yet they would skip the final season which at least had Howard on for a two-parter!

Anonymous said...

This was very interesting. I think the situation for many of those shows you listed remains the same today, but it's interesting to see the exceptions. I'd read before about Happy Days tanking in syndication, and while that may be true, it also enjoyed some fairly lengthy runs on TBS and then Nick at Nite. Get Smart, on the other hand, seems to have waned in popularity in reruns. Its run on Nick at Nite in the early-to-mid-90s was a fair success, but then the show kinda bombed when TV Land picked it up in 2001.

Even though a book like that would be pretty much useless these days, for reasons which you mention, a follow-up still would be interesting, if only to see how shows of the last 20 years have fared. I've read before about Family Ties being a big bomb in syndication (and it doesn't fare any better on cable, as its short-lived and/or low-profile stints on TBS, Nick at Nite, Hallmark and TV Land would attest). Cosby Show also didn't do well in syndication, though its cable numbers seem to have been decent over the years (although it's pretty much gone altogether from Nick these days, isn't it?). While I have no numbers to back me up, it seems like Cheers has done well over the years. Up until a few years ago, it was still holding down a nightly slot on WPIX in New York. For a show that debuted more than 25 years ago, that's pretty impressive. And though it's been off the air for close to 12 years now, Fresh Prince seems to be everywhere you look, both in syndication *and* cable.

Among the more recent shows, I think Newsradio probably would've been like WKRP, and enjoyed a fairly long, successful life in syndication, but A&E snagged it in what looked to be an exclusive deal around 2000 or 2001, and that kinda killed its syndie life. Seinfeld, of course, has held up very well. And though it's fairly new into the rerun market, Scrubs seems to be holding up well, and the cable networks, like Comedy Central and TV Land, are going after it too. Meanwhile, I've got a feeling Malcolm in the Middle has really bombed. Does it still have any plush time slots left in any of the major (or even semi-major) markets?

Wow, this was a lengthy reply. But how a show fares in reruns is a very interesting subject to me.

Rays profile said...

I can only go by personal experience...
My dad, who was in the Navy in WWII, loved McHale's Navy, and I think that was a lot of its syndication success; that could explain why it's not seen now.

And my mother never really liked Barney Miller during its network run, but as it went into syndication, and she saw it daily (I was a huge fan), she started to see what they were getting at, and really started to enjoy it.

It does seem that some of the big syndie successes are shows that didn't hit the top of the ratings on the network - Star Trek, Odd Couple, just to name two. Part of it may be the factor I mentioned in the last graf; part of it may be that they weren't the usual network fare at the time, and seen outside of that context are more of a draw; it may just be that during the day or early evening, they drew a different audience that appreciated it, hadn't bothered to see it before, and fell in love with it.

Cosby, on the other hand, had been overexposed on the network, so there wasn't that great a demand for it.

Larry Levine said...

The Munsters did very well for decades locally in on WPIX in NYC, especially considerating it only ran two seasons & Herman's classic characterzation didn't gel until a dozen or so episodes into the first season.

Anonymous said...

Another show to consider for huge long lasting rerun success is Andy Griffith. That has been shown on tv for as long as I can remember. Maybe it's more of a hit here in the South than elsewhere, but a day doesn't seem to have ever gone by when you couldn't see an episode of the show somewhere.

I'm assuming that it does well ratings wise. I have to admit, in this jaded time we live in, I find it pleasantly surprising that Sheriff Andy and Mayberry still have a place on tv.

Larry Levine said...

Andy Griffith falls into two unofficial syndication packages: the B&W Barney episodes & the unwatchable post-Barney color seasons. When ol' Andy confessed in recent years the show jumped the shark after Don Knotts left.

Todd said...

Something interesting I remember is when Mary Tyler Moore first hit Nick at Nite, it was a sizable hit (and, indeed, both it and Dick Van Dyke had long runs on the network for many years), and an AP article I read at the time (this was maybe six months after it debuted on N@N) remarked on how the show had not been a success in syndication, so N@N got the rights to it for a song. All of the MTM sitcoms performed similarly well on N@N, as I recall.

Now, of course, Fresh Prince is the greatest hit in the history of the "network," so who knows what people want.

Anonymous said...

My problem with sitcoms that tend to do social issues episodes and message shows is not that they do them, but rather that so many sitcoms do them badly. Too often, these episodes are either heavy-handed and preachy, or they fall into the trap of depending on the 30-second pep talk or the sudden insight that turns everything around - just like that - and makes it all okay. Complex, multilayered issues are reduced to simple black and white because of the persistant idea that a sitcom episode has to have an ending, that, if not happy and upbeat, at least brings everything back to the beginning. Too often, the results are just shallow and insulting.


P.S. This silly thing keeps telling me my URL has illegal characters in it, when I'm not putting in a URL. Thus, I am "anonymous."