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NBCU Turns a Ratings Lemon Into Cash

Tina Fey One of the mildly shocking news items over the past 24 hours--you know, other than Michael Jackson NOT being at the top of the MSNBC Web page--was NBC Universal selling the syndication rights to 30 Rock to Comedy Central for a whopping $800,000 per episode.

If you'll recall, the Tina Fey-Alec Baldwin sitcom was lauded by critics and ignored by viewers. It was ranked No. 102 in the ratings after its first season, No. 94 after its second, and No. 66 for the season just concluded. The first-season numbers alone should have killed it; the fact that it sold the syndication rights means the network will continue to produce it for another two seasons, at least.

Why? Several guesses: Lorne Michaels, SNL impresario and an executive producer on the show, holds a lot of sway at the network and usually gets his way; Fey, who plays the show's protagonist, Liz Lemon, is a franchise pick in anybody's draft, and a network would be stupid to lose her; despite low ratings, the show scores well online and on DVR playback, which means its viewers have the kind of money that advertisers like--in a fragmented market, it's quality, not quantity; it's a well-written, well-acted, well-directed show.

C'mon, you say. In an age where Two and a Half Men is a ratings juggernaut (with 14.9 million viewers this past season, it has almost twice the number of 30 Rock's), no network is going to keep a show around for quality's sake, right? Don't be so sure. In a rare display of patience, the guess here is NBC execs recognized its inherent worth, and with a paucity of winners at the fourth-placed network, it wasn't going to so cavalierly toss something like this aside. After all, this is the network that was patient with Hill Street Blues and Seinfeld, and those moves ended up paying huge dividends.

Will patience become the standard operating procedure for this or any other network? Of course not. But it is possible.

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I prefer to think that maybe the network is looking outside of the outdated, inaccurate current ratings system to judge the popularity of the show.

While there may not be a *better* model to judge ratings, it's not the best. It's certainly true that the show has millions of followers, and is a source of media attention and news--all positives for advertisers.

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