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Network-Proven: Names Pull in Syndie Dollars

With a crumbling economy worrying stations and syndicators, the panel of experts consulted for TelevisionWeek’s 2009 Most Bankable Stars of Syndication are putting their money on off-network personalities.

This year’s list is dominated by off-net stars such as Charlie Sheen, Seth MacFarlane, Jerry Bruckheimer and Ray Romano.

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Representatives of syndicated off-network series comprise a full half of the list, with “Law & Order” executive producer Dick Wolf making his first appearance.

Other big-ticket syndie franchise players pepper the list’s remaining spots, but talk-show cornerstone Dr. Phil took a tumble from second place last year all the way to ninth in 2009.

Off-network’s strong showing kept some purely syndication stars including Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Oz off the list.

TelevisionWeek’s annual “Most Bankable” list calls on industry experts such as analysts, dealmakers and production executives, to get the scoop on the who’s who of syndication’s blue-chip personalities.

TelevisionWeek tallied their votes using a point system that considers where the star is ranked on each ballot as well as how many times that person (or persons) appears on the ballots.

1. Oprah Winfrey

Last year’s ranking: 1

As she has for the past several years, Oprah Winfrey rules the Most Bankable List, as all of the panelists this year placed her at the top of their lists. “Anyone who did not rank her No. 1 should not be asked to participate in this survey,” said one participant.

Ms. Winfrey started 2008 with the announcement of her own network, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, launching this year in partnership with Discovery Communications. The network will be available in 70 million homes.

Her support of Barack Obama’s Senate run in 2006 paid dividends in 2008, as a much-watched presidential election came to a head in November. Oprah even made an appearance at President-elect Obama’s post-election speech at Chicago’s Grant Park.

“Talk about sustainable success,” one panelist said. “I think Oprah turned the tide for Barack Obama and set the stage for his election win. You can’t talk about power more than that.”

“What can we say?” said another participant. “[Oprah’s] the most admired woman on television. Doubt she’ll have trouble getting an invite to the inaugural ball.”

Despite the success, her show (like a majority of syndicated programming) is off 11% year-to-year in household ratings, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Her partnership with Discovery has raised concerns about whether the Queen of Talk will stick with syndication after her contract with CBS Television Distribution expires in 2011. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said during a conference call in November that his expectation is for Ms. Winfrey to leave syndication after her contract expires and work full-time on OWN.

However, both CBS Television Distribution and Harpo Productions said Ms. Winfrey had not decided what her plans are past 2011.

2. Charlie Sheen and ‘Two and a Half Men’

Last year’s ranking: 10

In syndication for its second year, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution’s “Two and a Half Men” has posted some impressive ratings. The numbers become even more impressive when you realize “Men” is enjoying success without the benefit of a cable run to boost its weekly averages.

“‘Men’ is maybe the last blue-chip sitcom which has been initially and exclusively available to broadcast. This advantage, the solid ratings and the inherent durability of the program make it a logical choice for the list,” said one contributor.

Leading the ensemble cast on “Men” is Charlie Sheen, whose portrayal of oversexed Charlie Harper has garnered him three Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe nods for comedy performance.

“‘Two and a Half Men’ is kicking ass in syndication and it is all because of Charlie,” said one respondent.

Despite Mr. Sheen’s notorious past, including alleged substance abuse and his playboy reputation, panelists said public opinion of him is still positive, with one panelist going so far as to call him “Mr. Bulletproof.”

“Here he is winning big in syndication and in primetime. America loves him. They love his comedy and his character,” said one entrant.

3. Jerry Bruckheimer

Last year’s ranking: 8

Jerry Bruckheimer has produced an extensive list of programming in off-network syndication, including the entire “CSI” franchise, “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace.”

“How many weekend hours of syndication is Bruckheimer responsible for?” asked one respondent.

New this season to syndication, “CSI: New York” holds the top spot in the ratings among new off-net weekend programming. “CSI: Miami” is ranked second overall for off-net weekends.

“The king of television with seven successful series. He produces 31% of CBS’ primetime schedule. Nobody comes close. He has to be on the list,” said one panelist.

“I think most indies would love to see [‘Law & Order’ executive producer] Dick [Wolf] and Jerry duke it out in an exec producer cage match to the death,” said another expert.

The “CSI” franchise programming has drawn a goodly sum from cable operators, as Spike paid a record $1.9 million per episode for “CSI: NY” in 2004.

“Mr. Bruckheimer knows how to make money in television,” said one respondent. “If anyone understands what America wants to see, it’s Jerry Bruckheimer.”

4. Judge Judy Sheindlin

Last year’s ranking: 4

Despite the numerous court shows available to stations, Judge Judy is still able to cut through the clutter to make her presence known in syndication.

Her show holds nearly a 100% ratings lead over its second-place competitor in the court show genre. She also consistently holds a spot in the top 10 highest-rated first-run syndicated programs every week.

“No on has come near her,” said one panelist. “She runs that television show. She is all over it. She was the original, but she’s original everyday.”

Judge Judy is signed to her show until 2012, the show’s 16th year. She hasn’t confirmed whether she’ll continue past that point.

“She’s still the No. 1 court show and she is feisty as ever,” said one expert.

Even if she doesn’t continue, Judge Judy remains one of the highest-paid women in Hollywood. Forbes magazine listed her as the 13th richest woman in entertainment, with a reported net worth of $95 million.

“Despite the current glut of court offerings, only one show can be considered the supreme court of daytime, [and] that is Judge Judy,” said one participant.

5. Dick Wolf

Last year’s ranking: Unranked

A new entrant to the Most Bankable List, Dick Wolf, with his “Law & Order” franchise, is taking advantage of the limited number of highly anticipated sitcoms entering into the marketplace.

“Law & Order: Criminal Intent” arrived in daily syndication—a rarity for an hourlong drama—last season to solid ratings. Based on that success, NBC Universal Television Distribution is giving “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” the same treatment for 2009.

“Creator of the ‘Law & Order’ franchise, which has helped to keep the NBC and USA networks credible, he has also brought back the drama to weekday syndication,” said one contributor. “Currently, ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ and next season ‘Law & Order: SVU’ will be part of Monday-to-Friday syndicated lineups, a positive change in the available options for local stations.”

Mr. Wolf is “relegating independent distributors to infomercial and weekend timeslots, one ‘L&O’ franchise at a time,” said another expert.

Even with “SVU’s” expansion into a daily strip, it continues to rule during the weekend as the highest-rated off-net drama in syndication. The series has grown around 30% from its start in 2007, averaging a 3.0 household rating.

“With more episodes from a single television franchise than anyone in history, you have to admire his accomplishments,” said one panelist.

6. Seth MacFarlane and ‘Family Guy’

Last year’s ranking: 10

It’s been a freakin’ sweet year for Twentieth Television’s “Family Guy” and its creator, Seth MacFarlane.

“With the hit off-network success of ‘Family Guy’ in syndication, the upcoming ‘American Dad’ headed to syndication and the already ordered ‘Cleveland’ spinoff, he’s the hottest animation creator in years,” said one panelist.

While “Guy” enjoys a solid showing in households, the show reaches young males, traditionally a weak demographic for syndication, making it that much more lucrative for stations. “Guy” is the highest-rated daily off-net program among males 18 to 34.

“According to my DVR, I spend more time with Seth’s offspring than I do my own,” said one contributor.

7. Ray Romano

Last year’s ranking: Unranked

A perennial syndication star, “Raymond” just missed the cut on last year’s list but has jumped back onto this year’s roundup.

“America is still in love with Ray Romano, and the show is still doing great in syndication,” said one contributor. “He’s got the secret formula to syndication success.”

The show has slowed down from seasons past, with a double-digit percentage drop in ratings as newer shows like “Two and a Half Men” and “Family Guy” swallow up time periods. The show has dipped 27% to a 3.0 household average.

Despite that, it’s still one of the highest-rated daily off-net shows in syndication.

Mr. Romano is “the ultimate ‘guy I’d like to know.’ He’ll be around for a long time to come,” said one panelist.

“Everybody has someone they can relate to on ‘Raymond,’” said another expert.

Mr. Romano will be back on the big screen in 2009, voicing Manny the woolly mammoth in 20th Century Fox’s “Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”

8. Hosts of ‘Entertainment Tonight’

Last year’s ranking: Unranked

“Entertainment Tonight” entered a new phase at the start of this season, its 28th, as the show began airing in high definition in September.

Renewed through its 31st season in 2011, “ET” continues to have a stranglehold on the entertainment newsmagazine genre, placing first for more than 600 straight weeks.

“No one can catch ‘Entertainment Tonight,’” said one expert. “Many have tried. With 28 years on top, ‘ET’ has distanced itself from the competition again with its move to high definition.”

The entertainment newsmagazine pack has gotten more competitive over the past two years with Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution’s “TMZ” entering the mix. “TMZ” has gathered steam, catering to a forgotten demographic in entertainment newsmagazines, males 18 to 34.

But “ET” remains the benchmark in the genre’s target demographic of women 25 to 54.

9. Dr. Phil

Last year’s ranking: 2

Stumbling from last year’s second-place ranking, “Dr. Phil” has shown a substantial amount of erosion from last year, off 28% in household ratings.

Counterbalancing that low, Dr. Phil’s Stage 29 Productions launched “The Doctors” in 2008 through CBS Television Distribution. That series has shown solid growth during its first months on the air, improving 46% in household ratings from its premiere.

“The Doctors” is currently the only freshman show to be renewed for a second season.

“Not the dominant powerhouse that his program once was, McGraw is still ranked among talkers just behind Oprah. But, maybe more importantly, Phil and [his son and executive producer] Jay McGraw have been the production forces behind both ‘The Doctors’ in 2008 and are scheduled to launch ‘T.D. Jakes’ in fall 2009,” said one participant. (CBS Television Distribution and Stage 29 Productions announced that Jakes’ show has been postponed until fall 2010.)

Despite being “annoying,” one commenter said, Dr. Phil “strikes an insatiable chord with daytime audiences as shown with the success of his top-rated new show ‘The Doctors.’”

10. Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa

Last year’s ranking: 3

Enjoying its 21st season on the air, Disney-ABC Domestic Television’s “Live With Regis and Kelly” continues to be a part of millions of viewers’ morning viewing habits.

“The perfect couple, whether married or, as they do, just spending mornings together with us,” said one panelist. “Their morning chat show rightfully dominates early daytime slots doing good old-fashioned television.”

The show received a good amount of press this season as “Live” moved into high definition at the start of 2009.

Despite the Regis love, “Live” is off 13% in its household ratings from year to year, allowing fourth-place talker “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to steadily close the rating gap between the two.

“Ratings may be sagging like Regis’ jowls,” said one expert, “but the religiously devoted fan base will always find time for Regis.”

“Middle America is Regis’ BFF,” they added.

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