Non-hit TV shows get a lifeline on the Web

“Community,” NBC’s quirky Thursday night comedy, has been a slacker in the ratings.

The sitcom about misfit community college students, starring Joel McHale and Chevy Chase, has averaged about 4 million viewers an episode this season, not enough to guarantee survival in the dog-eat-dog world of network television. The tepid ratings prompted NBC to put the show on hiatus. Still, despite its struggles, the series is headed toward the promised land of syndication.

Just a few years ago, a syndication sale for a modest performer like “Community” would have been unthinkable. Only the most popular and durable network comedies, such as “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” which this season are each drawing more than 15 million viewers an episode, were a lock for syndication, the corner of the business where the big money is made. In the past, TV executives would have to wait until a series made it to a fourth season -- putting it close to the magic number of 100 episodes -- before gearing up their syndication pitches to TV station groups and cable channels hungry for network reruns.

But earlier this month, the online video service Hulu announced that it was acquiring the Internet rights to “Community,” which is co-produced by Sony Pictures Television and NBCUniversal. The cable channel Comedy Central, owned by Viacom Inc., also has been in talks to license reruns of “Community.” That syndication deal, if consummated, could persuade NBC to bring back the show, which costs about $2 million an episode to produce, for a fourth season.

“‘Community’ has not been a wild ratings success, but it is a show that people really love and they tell 10 other people about it,” said Andy Forssell, Hulu’s senior vice president for content acquisition. “It is a good fit for online audiences, and in today’s digital and aggregated universe, shows like that can survive and thrive.”


Television production studio executives long have been wary of Hulu and other forms of Internet distribution, fearing they would lead to increased piracy and destroy lucrative secondary markets, including syndication and DVD sales. But video streaming services offered by Netflix, Hulu and are becoming an unexpected boon to the TV syndication market. By writing checks to license library content from networks, the Internet services are injecting new revenue into the TV business and breathing new life into middling shows.

“The introduction of the subscription video-on-demand platform has broadened the opportunities for exploitation of product in a very positive way for consumers and studios,” said Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. domestic television distribution. “You do not need to accumulate 100 episodes of a series because 40 hours of programming is a lot, so many of these shows work perfectly well on these new services.”

Netflix in November announced that it planned to restart production of another cult favorite, Fox’s “Arrested Development,” which won an Emmy for best comedy but lasted just three seasons before being canceled in 2006. Netflix was drawn to the series because of its young, affluent and fervent fan base.

Hulu saw some of the same attributes with the younger-skewing, computer-connected crowd that has been rallying to save “Community.” Just before Christmas, a cluster of “Community” fans wearing paper goatees gathered outside NBC’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan to sing a “Community"-inspired Christmas carol.

“It is great that content owners can look at us as an additional buyer in the marketplace,” Hulu’s Forssell said. “That’s going to help shows continue on the air and be profitable, whereas a few years ago some of these same shows would not have survived.”

Scott Koondel, distribution president for CBS Television Distribution, said the proliferation of mobile devices, including smartphones and digital tablets, also has helped to invigorate the market.

“People want to consume television in different ways and there are now so many different platforms,” Koondel said. “We have more places to market our shows. These opportunities weren’t available to us two or three years ago.”

One fledgling network is getting a boost too. The CW, which targets a female audience aged 12 to 34, has struggled since it launched in 2006 to attract a large fan base. The broadcast service -- a joint venture of CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Entertainment -- has failed to turn a profit. But this fall, the CW sold reruns of its prime-time hourlong programs, including “The Vampire Diaries” and “Gossip Girl,” to Netflix and Hulu -- moves that could finally lift the network onto more secure financial footing.

To be sure, the syndication market continues to be dominated by big network hits such as “Two and a Half Men,” “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Those top-tier comedies can command as much as $5 million an episode in syndication. Niche comedies, such as NBC’s “30 Rock,” can earn between $1 million and $2 million an episode in syndication.

“Community” isn’t the only show taking an atypical path to syndication. Until recently, programs that ran on cable TV channels -- dramas and comedies -- rarely made it to syndication. That’s because few original cable comedies were being produced, and the likely buyers in syndication, other cable channels and TV stations, weren’t interested.

But HBO’s “Sex and the City” proved that a fetching comedy could live stylishly on other channels. Reruns of other cable comedies, most notably FX’s offbeat “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns,” which first ran on TBS, have migrated to TV stations.

This month, CBS signed on to distribute “Hot in Cleveland,” the first scripted hit produced by TV Land channel. (Both are Viacom companies.) The second-season comedy, which stars TV veterans Betty White and Valerie Bertinelli, has been drawing fewer than 2 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen, the ratings firm -- a respectable number for a cable show but much smaller than the audience of most broadcast shows.

“Hot in Cleveland” will be an interesting test for syndication. Because the median age of the “Hot in Cleveland” audience is 53, the show may be less appealing to younger-skewing services such as Hulu and Netflix. Nonetheless, Viacom and CBS executives are betting that the “Hot in Cleveland” cable fan base will grow when it appears on broadcast TV stations.

“This is an underserved part of the audience and we decided to take something of a contrarian approach,” said Eddie Dalva, executive vice president for content and program enterprises for Viacom Media Networks. He added that the series has done well in Canada, Australia and other foreign markets. “We see the show as not just a strong cable comedy, but as a strong television comedy,” Dalva said.