Seinfeld In Syndication: Now That's Funny Money

The show is set to rake in some $1 billion

In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer bet one another that each couldn't be master of his own domain, meaning that they must resist the temptation to...anyway, each character loses the self-control contest. But even as his eponymous program winds down, Jerry Seinfeld is about to prove that in one domain he is master--television.

Reruns of Seinfeld, which already command among the highest rates in TV history, soon will soon be launched into the syndication stratosphere. A 1995 deal for the rights to air reruns is up for renewal, and TV stations nationwide are expected to ante up $6 million for each aging episode. That adds up to a cool $1.1 billion for the five-year deal now being shopped around by Seinfeld distributor Sony Pictures' TV unit. It's nearly double the previous record of $600 million collected by The Cosby Show in 1988. Says Bill Carroll, vice-president of TV stations adviser Katz Television Group: "We're telling clients to go into cash reserves if they have them."

PROVEN WINNER. The bidding will begin in earnest on Jan. 19 at the National Association of Television Programming Executives convention--the annual gathering at which syndication deals are made. With network viewership sagging, breakout shows are hard to find. Among the other sitcoms up for syndication are such ratings-underachievers as Suddenly Susan and Newsradio.

But the 160 Seinfelds now in syndication are proven winners, boosting ratings at stations such as Los Angeles' KTLA and New York's WPIX. In New York, where Seinfeld episodes are based, the reruns regularly beat the news at 11. Little wonder, then, that WPIX owner Tribune Co. is said to be willing to double the $200,000 a week it currently pays to air six episodes weekly. Says Dennis FitzSimons, president of Tribune Broadcasting Co.: "We're going to find a way to make a deal."

The money will go to Sony and to Seinfeld production company Castle Rock, a Time Warner unit. But Jerry himself, who has a 20% stake as producer and creator, stands to collect close to a cool $50 million a year with the new deal. He is currently getting about half that, over and above the $1 million an episode he gets for starring in this year's series.

With that much money at stake, Hollywood insiders speculate that Seinfeld timed his Dec. 24 announcement of plans to end the show this season to maximize his rerun returns. The news prompted a deluge of coverage--including Jerry on the covers of Time magazine and People--just as Sony began shopping a new deal.

"If you could sell with that publicity or without it, which one would you take?" asks Katz's Carroll. A Seinfeld spokesperson denies any manipulation, but the rerun deal may have made it easier for Seinfeld to turn down what industry sources describe as an eleventh-hour offer to stay of $5 million per episode and 1 million shares of stock from NBC parent General Electric Co.

With Seinfeld in its finals weeks, Sony says the calls are pouring in about reruns. Major TV-station owners, such as News Corp.'s Fox unit, are said to be interested. So, too, is NBC, which has its own stations. And with each call, the price is rising, claim industry executives. And, as Jerry said, in another memorable episode: "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

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