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Action hours take horror or sci-fi slant

Aug 20, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The once powerful reign of syndie action hours appears to be waning with the demise of weekly stalwarts “Xena” and “Baywatch Hawaii.” Instead, expect a bevy of alternative fare to hit the small screens this fall.
Rising costs and eroding ratings have hurt a number of syndicated action hours. Even variety series debuting the past two years have vanished, as Columbia TriStar Television Distribution’s “Battledome,” King World Productions’ “Cindy Margolis” and Buena Vista Television’s “Your Big Break” were all canceled. Meanwhile, Tribune Entertainment has stepped forward as the leader in the action hour business, which these days has become more dependent on international rather than domestic clearances for survival. Without clearances in Germany, France and the United Kingdom, the action biz can be far too unprofitable to fill up screen time. Despite widespread domestic clearances, New Line took a hit earlier this year, yanking “Hard Knox” before it went to air and struggling to get “Lost World” back for a third season.
With Studios USA all but withdrawing from the action hour biz, Tribune has stepped up, scoring big with the launch of “Andromeda” in fall 2000. The series debuted as the top weekly hour overall last fall. This season, the syndicator will add “Mutant X” to the mix, joining “Earth: Final Conflict” and “Beastmaster” among the action ranks. The company also has five additional action hours in development for fall 2002.
“Never before has Tribune Entertainment been in a position to provide such a diverse package of titles to our broadcasters,” said Dick Askin, president and CEO of Tribune Entertainment. “Over the past five years, we’ve steadily increased our programming selection for buyers by expanding our catalog to include more hours, strips, variety programs, specials, animated programs and television movies, all of which have been warmly received by the stations.”
Tribune has a ready distribution partner in its station group, which hasn’t yet made any groupwide purchases of fall 2001 first-run shows. The company pipeline also gives it a leg up in continuing to shop around its action hours when other distributors have bowed out.
Independents have attempted to take up the slack as Lions Gate and Promark Entertainment have cleared their upcoming hours “Tracker” and “The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne” throughout most of the country.
“Stations are excited about the return of Adrian Paul to the action hour business,” said Ira Bernstein, president of Lions Gate Entertainment, which distributes “Tracker.” “There are better opportunities for time periods opening up out there than in the past six to eight years, and we hope to take advantage of that.”
Among the stations to pick up “Tracker” have been the Chris-Craft stations. “Tracker” is their sole pickup since the stations were bought by Fox a year ago, but with the losses of series such as “Baywatch Hawaii,” “Battledome” and “Queen of Swords”-along with losing “Maximum Exposure” broadcast rights to other stations-the group has the most holes to fill.
Some programming holes are being filled by alternative reality fare or sitcom blocks, a move that is cheaper for both the stations and the syndicators. Twentieth Television, often scoring the top weekly hour in the ratings with “The X-Files,” will now add off-net runs of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Practice” to its library. Both series were quickly snatched up by program-hungry stations this season.
“We feel that the presence of either of these terrific shows clearly boosts their weekend presence for a station,” said Bob Cook, president of Twentieth. “We’ve been working with each of the outlets to capitalize on the high-profile brand identity already identified with these shows.”
Among reality fare, Paramount will bring in “Hot Ticket.” The movie-preview series will be hosted by “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent Leonard Maltin and E! personality Todd Newton.
New on the horizon in the reality game will be Hearst Entertainment’s firefighting hour “The Bravest.” With a clearance rate in the 80 percent range, the series will air on WCBS-TV in New York, KNBC-TV in Los Angeles and WBBM-TV in Chicago.
“The marketplace is challenging right now,” said Robert J. Corona, senior vice president of domestic sales at Hearst. “Our economic models for reality programming do not necessarily rely on an international production partner, and this benefits us when you look at the number of shows that have gone away this year. It opens up time periods for us.”