If you've ever wondered how studios can spend so much money on a movie or TV show and still hope to make money off the thing, Thursday's sale of syndicated reruns of the sitcom The Office is a good lesson in the arcane finances of show business.
The Office draws mediocre ratings on NBC (which doesn't stop it from being the fourth-highest scripted show in NBC's imploding Nielsen universe) and with a comparatively large cast has probably only returned small profits to its producers. But even a middling hit on broadcast television looks like pure gold to a cable operation like TBS, which just agreed to pay $750,000 an episode for the exclusive rights to rerun The Office over the next two years. (And it could have gone higher. Comedy Central dropped out of the bidding at the last minute in an attempt to save money to re-sign Jon Stewart.)
Then a deal with MyNetworkTV kicks in. Because MyNetworkTV's prime-time schedule is only two hours a night, and it has no network newscast (some MyNetwork stations don't have any newscasts at all), its stations are a gaping, bottomless maw for syndicated material to fill their airtime. The details are of the MyNetwork deal are hazy, but some TV people estimate that The Office could be pulling in as much as $4 million an episode when all is said and done. Even the low-ball estimate of $1.5 million an episode looks pretty fat for a show that finished 68th in the Nielsens last season.