TELEVISION : The $600-Million Man : Will a Record Syndication Gamble on ‘Cosby Show’ Re-Runs Pay Off?

<i> Peggy Ziegler is the Los Angeles bureau chief for Electronic Media, a weekly TV trade publication</i>

Steve Cohen doesn’t look like a nervous man. Settling back in his office, he discusses the coming TV season in measured tones, insisting that he isn’t about to roll the dice on a move that could make his career--or break it.

But certain station executives like Cohen--who is general manager of WCAU-TV, the CBS-owned-and-operated station in Philadelphia--look a lot like high rollers these days. They’re the ones who have bet big on “The Cosby Show,” which debuts tomorrow in syndication on 180 stations, while continuing its hit prime-time run on NBC.

For the record:

5:26 p.m. Oct. 9, 1988

Los Angeles Times Sunday October 9, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 13 words Type of Material: Correction
The “I Love Lucy” marathon ran on KTTV, not KHJ-TV as stated in “The $600-Million Man” (Oct. 2).

Spurred on by a masterful sales campaign by distributor Viacom Enterprises, the stations paid an unprecedented $600 million for the rights to air re-runs of 100 “Cosby” episodes over 3 1/2 years. That’s an average of $4.8 million per episode, nearly twice the average $2.5 million generated by ABC’s “Who’s the Boss,” the next biggest syndication seller.


Critics claim the stations overpaid on “Cosby” by as much as $100 million because of Viacom’s high-pressure sales campaign and a lucky opening sale to MCA’s WWOR-TV in New York, which bid twice what even Viacom expected, triggering hot bidding nationwide.

“Viacom did not sell a bill of goods,” WCAU’s Cohen said in his defense. He stressed that he plotted his “Cosby” buy for a full year before Viacom put the show on the market in 1986 (Cohen antied up $23 million for rights in Philadelphia). “They sold a very good product and we willingly paid for it.”

But many in the industry think Cohen and executives of the other stations have plenty to worry about.

“Stations are petrified that ‘Cosby’ won’t work,” said Martin Colby, general manager of San Diego’s independent XETV, which bid on but didn’t ultimately buy “Cosby.”

“I think it’s a set-up for a major disappointment,” said a station “rep” (who consults on the selling of commercial time), who requested anonymity because some of his clients bought “Cosby.” “People’s jobs are at stake here.” And possibly the future of some stations, who mortgaged their futures against the success of ‘Cosby’ in syndication.

Media analyst Larry Gerbrandt of the broadcasting research firm Paul Kagan Associates surmised “the risk is that it’s going to hit a wall, that the ratings won’t be anything close to what people expect.”

To protect their huge investment, the stations and Viacom, which is sharing ad-promotion costs in each market, are spending an additional $11 million this fall heralding the second coming of “Cosby,” also considered to be a record figure by a wide margin.

Stations have metaphorical fingers crossed that viewers will “Pause for Cos,” as San Francisco’s KPIX is urging in a $100,000 promo campaign--more than five times the station’s normal budget for such promotion.

Even Cos himself spent three days in a New York City studio taping 330 individual spots for the stations that bought the show. NBC never could persuade its fussy star to do such a promotion for its affiliates during the series’ original run.

$40 Million Cash

No other show has been as lucrative for its makers and its sellers as “Cosby”--and stations have been willing to pay dearly:

WWOR of New York paid $40 million in cash. Los Angeles independent KCOP Channel 13 will spend about the same over a three-year period. In Cosby’s hometown of Philadelphia, WCAU is shelling out $23 million, twice what competitor WTXF paid for “Cheers,” a big syndication item.

In market after market, “Cosby” set sales records.

At those inflated prices, stations will never recoup their investment through the sales of commercial spots in the “Cosby” time period. Instead, the series is seen as a “loss leader.” That is, stations plan to use “Cosby” to get viewers tuned to their channels and boost ratings for the time periods following “Cosby.”

Consequently, stations debuting “Cosby” this week are hawking the adventures of the Huxtable family as the TV equivalent of a K mart blue-light special. Examples:

In a burst of promotional wordplay, WCAU renamed Philadelphia “Billadelphia” and took its cameras on a name-changing tour of landmarks. Local celebrities gyrate to the familiar “Cosby” opening dance sequence in a series of on-air spots. Tonight the station will preempt CBS’ prime-time programming to air its own hour-long special on the life of Philadelphia’s favorite son.

KCOP is devoting $1 million worth of air time to promote the show for Los Angeles viewers in a campaign that had 40 “Cosby” ads a day running last week.

Sources estimate that by November, WWOR-TV in New York will have spent nearly half-a-million dollars promoting its “Cosby” debut.

In Phoenix, KPHO has 18-foot clocks--and Cosby’s enormous, grinning face--gracing four billboards that tell viewers that “Cosby time” is getting close.

In Kansas City, it was calendars--more than a half million of them. ABC affiliate KMBC spent $60,000 in an unprecedented direct mail campaign that delivered a “Cosby” calendar to every Kansas City resident with a mailing address, according to KMBC promotion director John Calver.

Stations have never had so much riding on a single series. But station executives such as Cohen insist that betting millions on the show that rescued NBC from third place--TV’s unchallenged No. 1 program for four straight seasons--is not risky business.

Number Crunchers

In Philadelphia, Cohen, once news director at KCBS in Los Angeles, hopes to do with “Cosby” nothing less than turn local TV on its head by unseating ABC rival WPVI. No small task: WPVI has dominated the market for 17 years.

That’s the stuff “Cosby” dreams are made of. In Los Angeles, KCOP executives believe “Cosby” will double its ratings at 6 p.m. and give the station dominance of the time periods between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. when paired with its powerhouse game show duo of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”

However, such optimism is not necessarily shared in Manhattan’s station representation firms, where the hum you hear in the halls is the sound of ratings numbers being crunched. These are companies that sell national ad time for local stations, keep track of how shows are performing across the country and advise client stations on which new shows look like hot prospects.

Off the record, reps say some stations overinvested, because the prospects of recouping will diminish yearly as viewership declines: Episodes of “Cosby” will repeat three times in the first year alone; viewers will be exposed to the series’ entire four-season run by February.

For some syndicated shows, called “evergreens,” repeats are no problem. Some Trekkies have seen “Star Trek” episodes so many times they can recite the dialogue. When Los Angeles’ KHJ Channel 9 staged a marathon of “I Love Lucy” episodes this spring, it demolished the competition. After six years, “Three’s Company” is still so strong in syndication that KTTV Channel 11 is using it to counterprogram Channel 13’s “Cosby.”

Some reps question whether “Cosby” has the same kind of legs as the tried-and-true evergreens. Stations paid their record dollars for “Cosby” before the unthinkable happened this spring: “Cosby’s” year-end ratings showed a 20% drop in viewership for the season.

Viacom blamed the drop on new “people meter” technology--used in determining number of viewers--that recorded smaller numbers for most shows last year. But “shows are cyclic,” as one program analyst put it, and some tongues wagged that America was tiring of the Huxtables.

A Lesson in Sales

“ ‘Cosby’ is the greatest example of P.T. Barnum salesmanship in the history of television,” mused San Diego XETV’s Colby. “You could write a Ph.D. thesis on the selling of ‘Cosby.’ ”

It was all the doing of Viacom, a leading, worldwide TV syndicator with 67 TV series, 1,000 movies and other programs in its distribution vault.

Exactly how the spoils are being divided isn’t a subject Viacom or Carsey-Werner would discuss for this article. According to Viacom’s annual financial statement, the company will keep 32.5% of the “Cosby” take, approximately $200 million. The remaining $400 million will be split between Bill Cosby and Carsey-Werner. (TV Guide estimated that Cosby would receive about $166 million.)

Those astronomical figures resulted from a sales juggernaut unleashed by Viacom in the fall of 1986 that was unprecedented, even in a business known for its hucksterism.

Of course, Viacom wasn’t selling the Brooklyn Bridge--”The Cosby Show” was one of the most successful programs in the history of television. When it debuted on NBC in 1984, the show single-handedly raised the number of homes viewing TV that night. In other words, people didn’t just switch over from other programs but actually turned the set on in larger numbers than usual just to watch “Cosby.”

The sitcom about a close, comfy family also turned other shows into instant hits. “Family Ties” was 73rd in the prime-time ratings before “Cosby”; scheduled after “Cosby,” it shot to No. 2. “Cosby” defeated 22 attempts by ABC and CBS to program against it, trouncing such former hit series as “Magnum P.I.” and “Simon & Simon.”

Viacom dubbed this invincibility “the Cosby Factor.” The pitch was that the series would draw phenomenal audiences and it would boost programming for the rest of the night, Viacom insisted.

Station executives, naturally, are used to hearing elaborate promises from syndication pitchmen.

So Viacom took the “Cosby” sale a step further, by creating an auction-like bidding process, laden with secrecy and intrigue. When the sales team did finally descend on the station, the pressure was increased again by a brilliant piece of innovative reverse psychology. Viacom refused to talk price.

Instead, the day following the presentation, stations received an overnight package from Viacom; inside, they’d find the minimum price Viacom was willing to take for the show. The stations were given 48 hours to bid.

Viacom even required stations to submit their bids under code names.

Colby recalled, “It was like psychological warfare. There was Viacom on one side and the stations on the other. And Viacom won.”

‘Scare ‘em’

The jumble of desks and small offices in Viacom’s headquarters on the 28th floor of a Manhattan high-rise looks more like an insurance office than the place where TV’s biggest deal was hatched. Joe Zaleski, president of Viacom’s domestic syndication division--the man who orchestrated the deal-- has the same modest office he occupied before he and a troupe of 12 set out to sell “Cosby” the way Patton went after Rommel.

Earlier this year, Zaleski gave an unguarded--and, say some in the TV industry--misguided interview with TV Guide. He was quoted bragging about Viacom’s craftiness in playing on the greed and fear of local managers.

“We gotta confuse ‘em and we gotta scare ‘em,” he told TV Guide writer Doug Hill.

When another reporter came calling later, Zaleski wasn’t making the same mistake.

With a publicist hovering nearby (Zaleski did the TV Guide interview alone), he painted a far less predatory scenario about how “Cosby” was sold.

“What we did is we researched the marketplace,” said Zaleski, a salty, backslapping character. “We showed the value of the property. We suggested where the property could play and what it could do and we left. We said, ‘You’ve got 48 hours. If you want to buy ‘Cosby,’ buy it. If you don’t want to buy ‘Cosby,’ that’s fine. But the balance of power will be with the person who owns the best show in television.’

“We didn’t have guns. We just went in and said, ‘This is the show.’ ”

But recalling when 20th Century Fox’s sale of “MASH” broke records in 1978, Zaleski chuckled, “Every guy who bought ‘MASH’ is probably in senior management now. Any guy who didn’t is probably selling bags somewhere.”

The Viacom executives dismiss “Cosby” naysaying as sour grapes from stations that lost out on the show.

“In every market, there’s four guys who have to say it’s a bad deal,” said Dennis Gillespie, Viacom senior vice president of marketing. “We’re outnumbered by the ‘Cosby’ bashers.”

But even bullish Viacom was staggered when WWOR paid twice Viacom’s floor price for rights to air the show in New York. The $40-million deal was the first for the “Cosby” sales team: “Everyone was speechless,” Gillespie recalled. “Every once in a while, you go to a spectacular performance. That’s what it was.”

The WWOR bid is credited by media analysts with adding at least $100 million to the final sales tally for “Cosby.” It helped Viacom launch a media blitz that helped drive up bids. “They had powerful publicity people, stories and items planted in the press,” said XETV’s Colby. “People tend to believe things when they’re constantly bombarded.”

But not every market fell before the “Cosby” assault. In San Diego, a market where the average sitcom sells for $3,000 to $7,500 per episode, Viacom was asking $16,500--to start--for “Cosby” segments. It took a full year and three rounds of bidding before XETV competitor KUSI bought the show for roughly Viacom’s asking price.

“I just think it was overpriced,” said XETV’s Colby, who made one “low-ball” bid for “Cosby” and then let the show go.

At KCOP, the one-two combination of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” propelled the station into the No. 1 spot in the advertising-rich 7-8 p.m. “prime access” time period.

But no one owns the entire 6-to-8-p.m. period in Los Angeles, which KCOP covets. Other broadcasters in the market pooh-pooh KCOP’s hopes of doubling its ratings with “Cosby” at 6 p.m., saying there aren’t enough viewers at that hour to meet KCOP projections. But the station says “Cosby” will simply draw more viewers to the tube at that hour.

(How will KCOP’s competitors counterprogram “Cosby”? KTLA will stick with “Magnum P.I.” from 6 to 7 p.m. KHJ will toss “The A-Team” against it while the network affiliates offer their regular news shows.)

“Cosby” detractors also point out that network hits generally take a dramatic ratings drop when they enter syndication. “MASH” earned a successful 26% share of the national audience the first year it was syndicated. But that was in 1979, before cable and home video began to siphon off viewers from broadcast television.

More typically, “Cheers” debuted in syndication last fall with, in terms of TV currency, an 8 rating (an average of 7 million homes) and a 15 share (percentage of sets in use) of the national viewing audience. That was after ending its regular season on NBC as the No. 3 rated show, with a 23.7 rating--21.4 million households--and a 37 share of the audience.

New York’s WWOR needs a hearty 15 rating year in and year out for the full 3 1/2 years of the contract--to see its $40-million investment pay off.

But “it’s impossible,” said a station consultant. “Every show drops (in the ratings) after its first year. With ‘Cosby’ you have 95 episodes right now that will be (shown) three times in the first year alone.”

WWOR manager Jane Hartley said the station is making its calculations differently. WWOR is counting on “Cosby” to raise the station’s overall daily ratings. A single overall ratings point is worth $10 million to the station, she said.

Fifteen is also a magic number in Philadelphia, where Steve Cohen is dreaming of capturing the No. 1 spot for his 5:30 p.m. news by programming “Cosby” at 5 p.m.

The stations in Philadelphia have chafed for 17 years under the dominance of WPVI, an ABC-owned station with one of the most profitable and dominant local news operations in the country. Their news shows can’t dent WPVI’s flashy “Action News.” WCAU, with one of the most critically acclaimed newscasts in the area, has suffered humiliation at the hands of WPVI, most recently with an embarrassingly short-lived “infotainment” show at 5 p.m.

WCAU plans to cut a half-hour of local news to slip in “Cosby.” Since news is usually the most profitable programming for a local station, the move demonstrates how much faith Cohen is placing in “Cosby.”

WCAU fully expects Cosby’s hometown appeal to help. The Temple University graduate has nurtured his roots, maintaining a home in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy district and frequently boosting Temple, including wearing a university T-shirt on his show.

Cohen won’t say how much the station is forking out for the “Billadelphia” promotional blitz, but he does say if it doesn’t work, WCAU will spend more.

“If ‘Cosby’ doesn’t do a 15, that just means we have to do some more work.”

Pressing On

At Viacom’s Manhattan offices, the conference room that served as “The Cosby War Room,” where Viacom’s sales strategy was conceived and coordinated, has been turned into a storeroom; the 13 members of the Cosby sales team are working on selling new shows, including the childrens’ game shows “Double Dare” and “Finders Keepers” that will compete with “Cosby” in some markets.

Mastermind Zaleski still pooh-poohs speculation that the company struck an unexpected mother lode with the show.

“You know what I think? I think we’re going to kick ourselves because we didn’t charge enough.”