I sure didn’t, but there we are. A few weeks ago, when it was announced that ABC’s production arm had signed Damon Wayans and Don Reo to do a new comedy pilot for them, I was a bit puzzled. Wayans and Reo’s previous ABC show, My Wife and Kids, wasn’t bad, but it was one of those ’00s family sitcoms that managed to run for over 100 episodes primarily because there wasn’t a huge crop of bread-and-butter sitcoms out there — like Yes, Dear (whose creator went on to get huge buzz with My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope, neither of which will make him as much money) no one talked about it.
Then I looked at the ratings for syndicated shows, and found out why ABC wants to get back in the Damon Wayans business at least at the pilot stage: My Wife and Kids has become one of the top-rated shows in syndication. On the list of top 25 syndicated shows in the U.S., it ranks # 15. It’s outranking some shows that are new to syndication and therefore are on the list because they were sold into a lot of markets. (A show like American Dad, for example, is syndication-friendly — cartoons always are — but probably won’t rise much higher than it currently is; same with Criminal Minds and How I Met Your Mother. These shows outrank Friends or The Simpsons not because they’re more popular, but because the stations have cleared some of the better time slots for their new acquisitions. As time goes on, some of them will drop further down as they’re shifted out of the good slots.) It just seems to have creeped up on everybody.
This already happened a couple of years ago with another sitcom ABC aired, though it didn’t own this one. “George Lopez” went into syndication, mostly in late-night slots, because nobody expected much from it. It turned out to be a surprise syndication hit, and remains in the top 20 now. Wife and Kids probably followed the same pattern, starting out in not-so-good syndication time slots and slowly proving that it was more popular than the stations expected it to be.
There are always reasons why shows become unexpected hits in syndication. What Kids and Lopez have in common is that they’re shows about people network TV comedies don’t have much room for now — African-Americans, Latinos — and they are traditional sitcoms with 100+ episodes from an era that didn’t produce a wide range of those types of shows. The infamous According To Jim also has 100+ episodes, but in the syndication market, it’s in direct competition with far better shows of its type. Whereas the only recent black sitcoms with a lot of episodes are Everybody Hates Chris, a movie-style comedy that inevitably died in syndication as movie-style sitcoms usually do (Reo also executive-produced that for a while, by the way), The Bernie Mac Show, same deal, Girlfriends, which might be too female-skewing for syndication, and the Tyler Perry shows, which are clearly inferior in production values to a show like Wife and Kids.
Finally, these are shows that are about men, that have a strong appeal to men, and syndicated hits — except for talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show — tend to be the ones with a lot of guy appeal, as you can see by the fact that Two and a Half Men and Family Guy are dominating the syndication ratings among scripted shows. So Wife and Kids is a syndication hit almost by default; it has all the qualifications.
Also, some of these four-camera shows from the ’00s, coming from an era where nobody paid attention to such shows, may be better than their reputation. I don’t know I’d say that for Wife and Kids from what I’ve seen of it, though I may take another look; but George Lopez was better than it was given credit for being (all of Bruce Helford’s shows are), so it’s not all that surprising that people liked it once they found it.
The need to find shows that can syndicate well is, as I’ve said before, a dilemma for all the networks with the possible exception of Fox — which has a syndication cash cow in its domination of the prime-time cartoon market. Other networks are torn between what works for them on the schedule and what will make a lot of money for the corporation down the road, and the question may become: do they put a My Wife and Kids type show on the schedule, knowing the tremendous upside if it manages to go to 100 episodes, or do they choose a show that might have more immediate potential but less syndication potential? (Now, you know that I advocate them just producing more traditional sitcoms as a matter of good sense, but I’m not in charge there, luckily. And you can’t tell a network executive that they shouldn’t put a potential success on the schedule just because it won’t syndicate well.) One way companies may try and split the difference is by trying to create four-camera, syndicatable sitcoms through their cable outlets, but the problem is that cable sitcoms don’t usually syndicate very well — partly because they’re clearly cheaper and hammier than the big-network equivalents, and partly because they get repeated so often on the cable networks.
Of course this is an issue that is part of the modern era of vertical integration. One advantage of the old system, where networks weren’t allowed to own most of their own shows, was that the network could concentrate strictly on what was good for the network, and the production company ditto. Today, the network and the studio still technically operate separately, which is why a network can’t be forced to pick up a show just for syndication purposes, but everyone knows that unofficially, the network and studio considerations overlap and make both jobs harder.
It’s also fun, for me anyway, to consider which shows do better than expected in syndication and which ones don’t. Certain rules are set in stone for now: comedies and procedurals syndicate well, serials don’t. Live-audience comedies and cartoons do well in syndication (with mock-documentaries like The Office and Modern Family possibly joining that group, though the sample size is too small as yet); movie-style comedies without laugh tracks do not. But within the categories of syndication-friendly shows, it’s sometimes hard to know what’s going to take off and what’s going to sink. A famous example from the ’70s is that all of Garry Marshall’s Paramount hits performed disappointingly in syndication — but The Odd Couple, which was never a big hit and spent five years as a bubble show, did great. The MTM shows had similar syndication troubles except WKRP in Cincinnati. And while “guy” shows tend to do well in syndication, that doesn’t explain The Golden Girls. It’s a fun thing to bet on — which hit show of today will be less than huge in syndication, and which under-the-radar show will make millions for its creator once it gets close to that 100-episode mark?