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Once Upon A Time’s 100th episode and the magic of syndication

Lana Parilla channels Evil Queen Regina at Once Upon A Time's 100th episode party (Photo: ABC)
Lana Parilla channels Evil Queen Regina at Once Upon A Time's 100th episode party (Photo: ABC)

When Once Upon A Time airs its 100th episode this Sunday night, it’ll enter an elite club. Precious few shows make that 100th episode benchmark these days, especially if you’re not counting daily programs like Wheel Of Fortune or Dr. Phil. It’s even rarer for a drama—and in particular a family-friendly drama—to hit that mark.

That’s something the show’s creators and stars were particularly aware of at the show’s 100th-episode party, held two weeks ago in Steveston, British Columbia, where the show shoots. As ABC’s new network president Channing Dungey and Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter looked on, the show’s principal cast and crew celebrated the milestone with a cake, a champagne toast, and a cautiously optimistic outlook. On a red carpet outside the event, Edward Kitsis, one of the show’s creators, told The A.V. Club, “The opposite of [100 episodes] is cancellation and failure, so we’ll take this over that.” His partner, Adam Horowitz, chimed in, “When you create a series, you hope that you can have an idea that has many stories in it, and to actually get the chance to tell this many stories is mind-blowing and really humbling.”

Much of the cast echoed that sentiment, with Jennifer Morrison, who plays the show’s troubled heroine Emma Swan, telling The A.V. Club: “It’s just so cool to be a part of something that people want to watch 100 episodes of. It’s getting more and more rare as time goes on.” Calling out the difference between British and American television production, Rebecca Mader, who plays evil Witch Of The West Zelena, said, “100 episodes is such a monumental milestone in America. In England, we only do two seasons and then go, ‘finished!’ To make it that long is so unheard-of these days. Shows get cancelled after three weeks if they’re not performing.”

But why is 100 episodes such a big deal, besides the fact that it means—in Once Upon A Time’s case, at least, that hundreds of people have somehow managed to stay employed? (Fun fact: In the five years that it’s shot in British Columbia, Once has generated 5,500 local jobs and pumped about about $276 million into the local economy.)

In television, 100 episodes has always a significant milestone not just because it sounds impressive—100 variations on anything is a lot—but because it generally marked when a show was ready for syndication. Airing five episodes of a network show a week, a network like TBS or MeTV could run 20 weeks of programming without repeating a story. Shows like that—with a bigger quantity of episodes ready and raring for new viewers—can command more in syndication; a show like Modern Family, for instance, recently earned $1.4 million per episode from USA for its syndication rights. (Those rights generally last for six consecutive showings of a series over three to five years, and then the rights must be renegotiated.)

Recently, though, the syndication market has shifted. As customers demand familiar content faster, that 100-episode barrier has fallen to 88 episodes, with a show like TV Land’s Hot In Cleveland entering the syndication marketplace after airing just 80 episodes. As a multi-cam comedy, though, Hot is practically made for syndication success. Sitcoms have always both sold and performed better in syndication, with the broader shows—Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theorydrawing bigger numbers than nichier, more self-referential programming like 30 Rock. It especially helps if those popular sitcoms—Friends, for instance—aren’t jam-packed with references to the eras in which they originally aired. Sure, Rachel Green’s haircut might have inspired a trend in the ’90s, but, to its credit, Friends never dealt all that much with Bill Clinton’s political maneuverings or whatever was going on over on dial-up internet. And that’s why it reportedly made Warner Brothers almost a billion dollars when it was initially sold into syndication, making all that hubbub about the central cast’s inflated paychecks seem like a moot point. (Interestingly, reality shows have basically zero value in syndication. No one wants to re-watch old seasons of Survivor or The Bachelor.)

That timeliness is something Once has always been a little conscious of, at least according to Once’s Executive Producer Steve Pearlman. He told The A.V. Club on the red carpet:

It was 2011 when we first went to Storybrooke, and it had this lost in time quality that we’ve maintained. We don’t do a lot of pop culture references in our show, we don’t do a lot of “stolen from the headlines” stories or references, so I think because we have this timeless quality, and because we dip into these fairy tales and we contemporize them, we don’t feel like a medieval show. We’re not completely alien to a modern audience. We’re also not so beholden to the contemporary and social mores that it would become irrelevant tomorrow.

Despite the fact that it has 100 episodes in the can, Once Upon A Time is actually a little disadvantaged in the syndication marketplace, and not just because a show about modernized real-life fairy tale characters with questionable life problems could be a hard sell to a big chunk of the marketplace. As an hour-long drama with season-long arcs and characters that dip in and out of the show’s overall storyline, Once is pretty much a fans-only proposition. You can’t really pop in on a Monday for season three’s “Think Lovely Thoughts” and watch the Storybrooke gang fight off evil Peter Pan in Neverland only to come back on Friday for “New York City Serenade” and find that—surprise!—all your beloved TV pals are back in their hometown after having escaped Neverland, except for the protagonist Emma, who now lives in New York, is engaged to some stranger, and has completely forgotten that fairy tales are real. To watch Once is to watch all of Once, in order, and that’s an investment.

Selling a show into syndication isn’t just a mark of success for the show’s creators—it’s smart business. Despite all the big-budget stars and flashy advertising, making television isn’t always a winning financial proposition. More shows fail than succeed, especially when you’re lumping in pilots that never see the light of day. So shows that hit that 100-episode barrier, that get sold into syndication, can become a network’s golden goose. That’s why shows that might be floundering in their third or fourth season still get renewed—once they cross that 88- or 100-episode line, their rights can be sold, making them instantly profitable for the network. Production companies even offer discounts to a show’s network, basically saying “please God, keep us on the air. We’ll be cheap, and then we can all make more money.” Sometimes, networks even shove those struggling shows over to Friday or Saturday nights, where they might draw minimal viewers, but still chug along toward the monetary finish line.

While fans at home might just be concerned with Once’s Captain Swan ’ship, or what bitchy bon mot Evil Queen Regina might sling out during any given episode, it’s clear that Once’s showrunners and executives have always had the show’s bottom line in mind. In Steveston, Pearlman told The A.V. Club, “Certainly the syndication market today isn’t what it was 20 years ago or 10 years ago, but it’s still a relevant number in terms of after-market sales and in terms of financing and monetizing a show. The studio needs to make a certain number of episodes in order to make its money back. Hopefully this is a show that will have proven to be a great creative show for the audience and a moneymaker for the Disney company as well.”

There are notable exceptions to the syndication success model. Sometimes, shows that barely made it during their first go ’round can find fans after repeat viewings. Star Trek, for instance, only ran for three seasons on NBC in the late ’60s but found success in syndication, ultimately leading to all manner of spin-offs, licensing deals, and Spock-eared superfans. And while The Big Bang Theory’s first-run numbers were never anything to scoff at, the show’s CBS ratings actually grew 20 percent during its sixth season—right around the time it started airing in syndication.

Recently, with the move of TV audiences toward streaming services and DVD box sets, success in syndication has gotten even murkier for certain shows. Though Once Upon A Time draws 7.3 million viewers weekly, it’s also already available on Netflix, ABC.com, a number of other streaming services, and in a variety of physical forms. There are hundreds of clips online, and though the fanbase is there, should the show stop producing new episodes, it’s anyone’s guess whether those fans would follow the show to, say, FreeForm or USA. They could instead take their passions to Arrow, for instance, or choose to simply pop in a couple episodes on DVD from time to time.

While Once Upon A Time, with its Disney-fied integrations of properties like Frozen and Cinderella, hasn’t been found its syndication prince yet, its outlook is fairly rosy. Some network, somewhere, will probably take it. And even if it doesn’t, it’s still airing on ABC almost every Sunday night. Add to that the staggering figure that the show already airs in over 200 countries (it’s particularly popular in Brazil), and it’s clear: Even by the harshest measures, Once Upon A Time has found lasting success. Unsurprisingly, ABC just announced the show’s renewal, ensuring a season six, and possibly even beyond.