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Syndicated sitcoms join marketplace

When it comes to television's highest-rated sitcoms, viewers are seeing double this season.

Roseanne, America's favorite program, launched its fifth prime-time season last month, and its first in syndicated reruns. Murphy Brown, Vice President Dan Quayle's least favorite program, likewise began its fifth season last month, as well as its first in nationwide repeats.

Also out of the syndication box this fall are Designing Women and The Wonder Years.

On this year's prime-time schedule, at least nine sitcoms also are doing time as local reruns _ a television first.

There are myriad reasons for this comedic overabundance, but none of them necessarily reflect a boon in the humor market. Rather, they signal an end to the days of obscene profits from the syndication of top-rated sitcoms.

Independent stations buying network comedy reruns now hope for only "respectable" ratings. The competition from other independents, cable, VCRs and four broadcast networks is so fierce that the entire syndication market is redefined on an almost daily basis.

"What any programer has to do now is not get excited," said Mark Sonnenberg, programing director for independent KTLA in Los Angeles, which recently debuted reruns of Murphy Brown and Designing Women.

"You can't look at (ratings) numbers every day because it just goes up and down too much," Sonnenberg said. "There's a glut of sitcoms out there. You're just not going to see the massive payoffs in syndication."

True. But everything is relative.

Syndication, a $5.7-billion worldwide market, remains the most lucrative end of the television business. It is here that television producers and distributors reap real profits by selling a warehouse of product whose manufacture _ to a certain extent _ already has been paid for.

Today's money, however, is considerably less than what was made during the boom days of the 1980s. One of the biggest holders of that era's rerun wealth?

Bill Cosby.

In 1987, when The Cosby Show had amassed enough episodes for syndication (roughly 100), bids for reruns of the sitcom doubled the industry's previous highs. Today, the show has taken in more than $1-billion in syndication rights.

Cosby, a part owner of the series, which no longer is in production, earned a pretax syndication share totalling $333-million. That wealth has made him the richest entertainer on the Forbes 400 list.

The distributor cost for reruns of Roseanne, this year's No. 1 show, was $2.1-million per episode, said Kagan analyst Paul Bricault. He estimated the same costs for Murphy Brown at $1.2-million.

A distributor sells TV series to local stations across the country, which number more than 300 _ not counting those owned by or affiliated with broadcast networks. In the first round of buying Cosby reruns, for instance, New York's WWOR reportedly paid $250,000 per episode.

But that figure certainly is far above the typical money paid by stations to distributors today, primarily because of a crowded market.

"The glut and proliferation of comedy shows hurts the distributors," Bricault said. "There are more shows competing for fewer time slots."