In 2004, indie comedy powerhouse Carsey-Werner abandoned its efforts to sell the company after none of the three bidders was willing to pony up close to a billion dollars, which the company estimated its library was worth. A year later, amid rising vertical integration and a comedy downturn at the broadcast networks, Carsey-Werner shut down its production operations as the last of its big hits, Fox’s That ’70s Show, was winding down its eight-season run.
Carsey-Werner became a sales/distribution company, with Jim Kraus, President of Carsey-Werner TV Distribution, and his team, mining the company’s library for off-network sales in broadcast and cable syndication. That library includes over 2,000 episodes of hits on all of the Big 4 networks from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, including Roseanne and Grace Under Fire on ABC, The Cosby Show, A Different World and 3rd Rock From the Sun on NBC, Cybill and Cosby on CBS and That 70s Show and Grounded For Life on Fox (the latter finished its run on the WB.)
On the heels of the recent $425-$500 million streaming deals for 1990s-2000s network comedies Friends, Seinfeld and The Office, Carsey-Werner is pursuing new SVOD agreements for its library — believed to be one of the largest independent comedy libraries — starting with That ’70s Show, Roseanne and A Different World.
That ’70s Show is in the final year of a deal at Netflix where it is believed to be among the top 5 most popular acquired comedy series, alongside The Office, Friends, Parks & Recreation and New Girl.
With Universal TV’s The Office and Parks & Recreation already set to move to NBCUniversal’s Peacock, Warner Bros. TV’s Friends HBO Max-bound and 20th Century Fox TV-produced New Girl likely to join the Disney fold, That ’70s Show may be the most watched off-network comedy series currently on Netflix that the platform has a real shot at keeping because its studio is not affiliated with a streamer.
“We have begun conversations. Because Netflix is the incumbent for That ’70s Show, we will give them plenty of opportunity to renew it,” Kraus told Deadline. “I think they would like to keep the show, but there are at least 3-4 other places interested. With all the interest that has been expressed, if we cannot come to an agreement with Netflix, we will move on.”
While it may not hit the stratospheric licensee fee highs of The Office, Friends or Seinfeld, That ’70s Show could be the next mega sitcom streaming sale, expected to land a nine-figure deal.
That is because of its sizable viewership and multi-generational appeal. According to Nielsen, 131 million episodes of the show were watched on Netflix domestically in the second quarter of 2019. With its universal coming-of-age themes and an all-star cast, including Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, That ’70s Show has been popular with both Gen X-ers and millennials.
“We have high expectations for That 70s Show,” Kraus said. “Because of the nature of the show, it’s ageless and will be around for a long, long time.”
The rest of Carsey-Werner’s comedies are currently on Amazon Prime Video. Of them two, Roseanne and A Different World, have agreements that are up in 2020, the others are tied up until 2021.
Looking to take advantage the white-hot comedy streaming acquisition market, Carsey-Werner got ahead of the curve and took out Roseanne early. (The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World is expected to be next.) There has been a lot of interest in the blue-collar sitcom starring Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, which I hear is in final negotiations for a new streaming deal. It would include the original nine seasons as well as the revival 10th season that aired on ABC last year.
That pact does not include spinoff The Conners. Produced by Carsey-Werner co-founder Tom Werner’s Werner Entertainment, the comedy, now in its second season, also is being distributed by Carsey-Werner TV Distribution. With the show doing well 30 episodes in, the producers opted to hold it back in terms of a streaming deal hoping that, if the cast can continue doing it, the sitcom could go on for several more seasons, amassing enough episodes to be sold by itself.
The interest in Roseanne does not appear to have been impacted by the 2018 controversy surrounding Barr, which led to the cancellation of the revival. Another legacy show in the Carsey-Werner library, The Cosby Show, saw a number of its off-network runs suspended last year amid a slew of sexual assault allegations agist star Bill Cosby.
Driven up by the current streaming wars, the value of the Carsey-Werner library has increased from the just below $1 billion the principals were seeking 15 years ago.
“We are happily surprised when the bar gets raised because everyone’s prices would get elevated,” Kraus said. “Not all shows will get to $500 million but certainly the pricing will be raised for all good shows, including our shows. It’s a good time for the Carsey-Werner distribution company.”
Because on the library’s enormous size and the ever growing number of streaming players. Kraus anticipates an increase in the revenue generated by the shows.
When in 2004 the Carsey-Werner principals couldn’t get their target price, they took a gamble by not selling to the highest bidder but instead keeping the company and continuing to sell rights to its library, believing that they would make more money long-run that way. And while no one could’ve produced in 2004 the streaming boom that has escalated prices on off-network comedies, “had they sold the library then, I think they would’ve regretted it to this day,” Kraus said.
Initially, the sales relied heavily on broadcast syndication, a pipeline that dried up by 2014 as new sitcoms came down the pike. Cable syndication has continued to be robust, with That ’70s Show windowed on Comedy Central and IFC, Roseanne on TV Land and CMT, The Cosby Show on TV One and A Different World on BET. All series from the library have been additionally sold to diginets
As broadcast syndication was starting to dwindle as a revenue stream, streaming came along. Netflix originally licensed all Casey-Werner comedies in 2012-13. After the first go-around, the streamer kept Roseanne, That ’70s Show and The Cosby Show. It eventually held solely onto That ’70s Show.
During its heyday in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s, Carsey-Werner was the leading TV comedy series producer. While the company left the producing space in 2004 after a string of short-lived shows, via successor Werner Entertainment, the company has made a return to making new content with the Roseanne revival and spinoff The Conners.
Kraus would love to see two other titles from the library revisited.
“From our point of view, we would be thrilled by a That ’70s Show reunion as a possible first step,” he said. “A Different World has a very strong following, and a lot of people would love for it to be rebooted.”
Here is Kraus’ pitch about the company’s library:
“Our upcoming and classic off-network library titles continue to prove themselves across every platform from syndication and basic cable to diginets, home video, transactional VOD and now SVOD. As new streaming services look to mine their companies’ most successful sitcom properties, the ballooning SVOD market is clearly in need of A-list titles that have played such a vital role in attracting not just mass audiences but younger subscribers. This supply and demand issue is fueling today’s streaming wars, sending prices sky high for premium comedies and putting us in a very enviable position – an independent with a very deep library of rich, relevant, brand-name content.”
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