NBC seeking syndie strength

May 7, 2001  •  Post A Comment

With less than a year under its belt, the fledgling syndication unit NBC Enterprises is maintaining the brisk pace it started at this year’s National Association of Television Program Executives convention.

Although upcoming talk show “The Other Half” remains the company’s sole first-run series about to grace the airwaves, analysts and competitors behind the scenes seem to be focusing on where else NBC syndication is heading.

Leading the pack, the company announced the upcoming debut of “Weakest Link” in syndication for 2002 based on early success of the prime-time version of the series, a move that had been anticipated for a number of months. Despite reports that the strip wouldn’t hit the broadcast schedule until fall 2002, it now appears that the distributor may attempt to launch the off-network series in January as a half-hour strip available as an hour block.

One NBC source said the network’s West Coast President Scott Sassa was high on pushing the show forward in an effort to quickly solidify the company’s position in the syndication market. Although many syndicators shy away from launching both prime-time and syndicated vehicles of the same show (as Buena Vista did with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”), “Weakest Link” skyrocketed in England in daytime under similar circumstances.

“We were lucky enough to go to NATPE with pilots of `Weakest Link’ already in tow,” said Ed Wilson, president of NBC Enterprises. “But we didn’t want to rush ahead and launch the show in September, because there just weren’t enough time periods and we didn’t want to waste an opportunity to strip a series that is skewing to 18- to 34-year-olds like no other game show.”

With a time frame for the launch becoming clearer, outsiders also speculated heavily that the stripped version of the show would land in access, where game shows typically have found their greatest success. Yet NBC’s owned-and-operated stations had multiyear deals with “Extra” and “Access Hollywood,” which currently air in the access hour.

NBC recently made a move to reacquire “Access Hollywood” from distributor Warner Bros. Early pundits quickly placed “Extra” on the outside looking in, thereby opening a time slot for “Weakest Link.” However, NBC executives vehemently deny that “Extra” is going anywhere, no matter what happens with the Warner Bros. negotiations. In fact, a long-term extension on its stations for “Extra” is being pitched to NBC in exchange for rights to “Access.” One general manager of an NBC station said he wouldn’t want the game show anywhere near prime time in fear of diluting the audience. Despite the youthful appeal of the show, the series now seems set for late fringe.

“We believe the show can play well in early fringe, and if it breaks out like we expect it to, then of course we’ll consider upgrading,” Mr. Wilson said. “But first we have to let the show earn an access time period.”

“Survivor” winner Richard Hatch was the first talent attached to host the series, taping a pilot earlier in the season. Recently, numerous reports have surfaced indicating that Mr. Hatch is off the project. Mr. Wilson said Mr. Hatch is still in the thick of the possibilities, but added that the company is looking for the host who is best for the show. The NBC Enterprises president said he has received calls from a slew of celebrities interested in the project.

First and foremost, however, Mr. Wilson is determined to keep “The Other Half” in the spotlight. The company recently added “Saved by the Bell” and “Pacific Blue” vet Mario Lopez to the ensemble slate of hosts. The company is now readying a satellite promotional telecast for stations in lieu of attending Promax this year.

The 2002 season, however, could be highlighted by an action hour and another strip from NBC Enterprises. Already under consideration is a strip featuring psychic Char Margolis, with veteran executive producer Stuart Krasnow reportedly attached to the project. Other potential projects could include another talk show pilot, according to sources.

With syndicated hours falling quickly in the industry in recent years, highlighted by the departures of “Xena” and “Baywatch Hawaii,” NBC is ready to toss its hat into the ring.

“We are talking about some first-run projects with Ed Wilson on first-run dramas for the weekend,” said NBC Studios President Ted Harbert. “We are looking at some action-adventure dramas and have several ideas we are going to get ready to pitch to the stations and Jay Ireland. We are still looking at some deals coming up between now and scheduling week.”

Mr. Harbert said the action hours will be targeted for weekend afternoons rather than prime access but will be dependent on the ever-important international partners to get off the ground. The company recently agreed to an international output deal with MGM for most of its shows.

“Weekly hours are a business our O&Os would like to be in,” Mr. Wilson said. “We are trying to work closely with studios on anything scripted, and if we get an hour we love, we can consider it for both network and cable as well.”

Michael Freeman contributed to this report.