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Get playbook ready for fall season blitz

Aug 20, 2001  •  Post A Comment

More than ever before, the 2001 syndication season looks like a game of chance.
Distributors are avoiding the launch of celebrity-driven series, none of which have ignited the charts in recent years (think Martin Short, Roseanne and Cybill Shepherd). Instead they are relying on formats-some traditional and some experimental-this season. Viewers will be treated to a heap of dating, a lot of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and a taste of the spirit world.
Four of last season’s first-run strips made the renewal cut, with “Power of Attorney,” “Judge Hatchett,” “Street Smarts” and “To Tell the Truth” all returning to the small screen for another go-round, making for a survival rate of 33 percent (with eight new strips now canceled). Of the four sophomore first-run strips to return last season, only “Divorce Court” and “Blind Date” will see daylight this fall, and “Queen Latifah” and “National Enquirer Uncovered” will hit the cancellation highway.
As usual, syndicators are entering the season with high hopes, despite the shocking drop in the upfront advertising market, and they have a lot to prove during the season.
Talk shows
Talk shows come from the most fruitful of genres, but they are also the most difficult shows to gain audience acceptance. The last new show to strike fire was Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution’s “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” five years ago. Ms. O’Donnell will call it quits after this season and be replaced by Caroline Rhea. Last season saw “Dr. Laura,” “HouseCalls” and “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” fall by the wayside, as did “Latifah.” This coming season could be a do-or-die period for two other syndicated stalwarts, “Jenny Jones” and “Sally Jessy Raphael.”
Five talk show newcomers will take their chances this season, with King World Productions, Buena Vista Television, NBC Enterprises, Tribune Entertainment and Studios USA Domestic Television each offering their own formats. Of the five, none will contain the hard-edged mentality that brought series such as “Jerry Springer” to the top in recent years. Instead, the past season showed that the softer strips such as “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Live With Regis and Kelly” and “Maury,” have generally fared better year to year.
Buena Vista was the first out of the gate with “Iyanla,” which debuted Aug. 13 and comes with stellar references. Iyanla Vanzant is a protegee of Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters, who is an executive producer of the new talker. But audiences had been slow to find the series, since at press time metered market ratings showed a 1.5 rating and 5 share during the show’s first two days on the air, on par with other recent outings in the talk world.
However, the strip has shown strong viewing levels in the New York market, where it replaced a second run of “Oprah” and is second in the time period with a 2.2 rating and 8 share, up 22 percent from the year-ago time period average. The West Coast was not as friendly to “Iyanla,” and the Los Angeles run on KNBC-TV took sixth place in its time slot with a 1.0 rating and 3 share.
Next up will be Studios USA’s “Crossing Over With John Edward” on Aug. 27. It’s based on the Sci-Fi Channel show of the same name in which the host communicates with deceased family and friends of audience members. Despite national skepticism, including a Time magazine article questioning Mr. Edward’s abilities, the show has developed a cult following on the cable channel and is preparing to win over the broadcast world.
“It’s one thing to be selling hype or selling off of a pilot or presentation tape in the hope that the production will look that good every day,” said Steve Rosenberg, president of Studios USA Domestic Television, after the article ran. “It’s quite another to have a show that is already on the air, has constantly high production values and people are this excited about.” Already, syndicators have at least five other psychic projects in the works, should “Crossing Over’s” ratings hit the roof.
On Sept. 10, both King World’s “Ananda Lewis Show” and NBC’s “The Other Half” will make their bows, the former showcasing a well-established MTV VJ and the latter featuring an ensemble cast of males, including Dick Clark, talking about relationship issues from a man’s point of view.
Former BET and MTV talk show host Ananda Lewis has said she aims to “have real conversations,” and that she believes the “American public is ready to take themselves seriously.” The series is said to specifically target the key 18 to 34 and 18 to 49 demographics.
Meanwhile, NBC Enterprises President Ed Wilson will debut the syndie unit’s first strip since forming a year ago. Mr. Clark, radio personality Danny Bonaduce, physician Dr. Jan Adams and former “Saved by the Bell” actor Mario Lopez, share perspectives on a variety of issues with a prospective audience of women who long to understand them. The series will feature a variety of topics of interest to women, ranging from fashion and relationships to child-rearing, sex and friendships.
Finally, Tribune will offer its own take on the genre with “Talk or Walk” on Sept. 17 with best-selling author Michael Baisden set to host. After listening to both sides of a bickering couple’s story, Mr. Baisden and his studio audience offer insight and opinions on whether reconciliation is possible. The featured guests then make a momentous decision about their lives.
Court shows
Twentieth Television and Columbia TriStar Television Distribution are preparing to run neck and neck with “Power of Attorney” and “Judge Hatchett,” respectively, this season. However, a glut of court-show offerings not only prevented King World’s “Curtis Court” and Telepictures Productions’ “Moral Court” from breaking through, daytime vet “Judge Mills Lane” got the ax as well.
Though technically no new court shows will launch this fall, Twentieth will roll out “Texas Justice” in January. The syndie unit began a successful slow regional rollout earlier in the year and sold the series nationally in June.
Stations that signed up for the 87-week term running from January 2002 to September 2003 were offered a free four-month run of the show before the official January launch. From Sept. 17 through Dec. 2001, station clients can air the 70 shows produced for the regional test without paying cash license fees or giving up any barter ad time.
Fewer court shows cluttering up the docket should make for higher ratings this season for the survivors.
Relationship strips
Perhaps nowhere in syndication will the battle be hotter than among relationship strips.
Thanks to the success of “Blind Date” and “Change of Heart,” four new series will enter the fold this season, each with its own spin on the genre. “Blind Date” continues to be one of the few series to grow, while “Change of Heart” will feature a new host and a new location for its third season.
Last season saw two newcomers, MGM’s “Sex Wars” and Studios USA’s “Lover or Loser,” tank in their debuts. With a likely saturation in the marketplace this season, ratings will be tougher to come by for any breakthrough contenders. However, should a show succeed, the high demo numbers will be worth more than their weight in gold.
On Sept. 17, the battleground will see its first fire as three of the series, Telepictures’ “Elimidate,” Paramount Domestic Television’s “Rendez-View” and Columbia TriStar’s “Shipmates” all begin airing, some in competition with each other.
“Elimidate” will follow the trials of one love-hungry contestant who dates a number of potential mates simultaneously, axing one at a time until left with a single partner.
“This is one of those shows that stations are excited about because it takes relationship shows to a new level,” said Jim Paratore, president of Warner Bros.’ syndie unit Telepictures’ Productions. “We’re excited about reaching viewers this way in a fragmented audience universe and expect cross-platforming to play a big part in the future.”
The series could be buoyed by a prime-time
version of the show, which will air on The WB this fall, providing promotional platforms in both daytime and prime time.
“Rendez-View” features comic Greg Proops and a panel of celebrities who provide commentary on the dating action.
Meanwhile, Chris Hardwick will host “Shipmates”’ three-day, two-night adventures for couples on board Carnival Cruise Line ships. The show is attempting to veer away from the comedy and competition approaches of other series and instead pull more elements from the booming network reality genre. Among these are storytelling over a lengthy period of time and open-ended settings driven by post-production editing and heavy narration from the participants.
“Chris is just the kind of guy who could complement all the successful elements we have on the show,” said Steve Mosko, president of Columbia TriStar Television Distribution. “This is a series that will be able to find an audience that’s difficult to reach-and it’s able to air in every daypart.”
Two weeks later, Universal will attempt to capitalize on the success of “Blind Date” with “The Fifth Wheel,” featuring host Aisha Tyler and produced by the same team that is behind “Blind Date.” The show will be paired with “Blind Date” in a number of markets.
Game shows
Before heavyweights “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Weakest Link” and “$100,000 Pyramid” hit the scene next year, the sole entry in the game show world will be Pearson Television’s “Card Sharks.”
“Sharks” is unlikely to pressure “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” but the slow year-to-year erosion of the latter two series does open possibilities for future players in the next few years. Meanwhile, Pearson has successfully launched both “Family Feud” and “To Tell the Truth” in the past two years and is out for a hat trick with “Sharks,” hosted by Pat Bullard.
“We’re very excited about station response to our trio of game shows,” said Joe Scotti, president of domestic distribution and marketing for Pearson. “The shows continue to grow week to week, and stations are responding to their continued success.”
Off-network
While all eyes will be focused on King World’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” this season, many insiders expect strong showings from Columbia TriStar and Twentieth Television’s players as well. With fewer sitcoms coming down the off-net pike, topped with a lackluster performance from “Spin City’s” off-net debut last September, off-net series will have a lot at stake.
Columbia TriStar will enter two series, “Just Shoot Me” and “The Steve Harvey Show,” and Mr. Mosko is pleased with the early results from station and ad sales efforts.
“Sales results are strong,” he said. “Especially with `Just Shoot Me,’ which is going to be paired in a lot of major markets with the likes of `Seinfeld,’ `Friends’ and `Raymond. With these access slots, and paired in a lineup with similar programs, we expect the show to really perform.”
“King of the Hill,” meanwhile will set out to do what “The Simpsons” did for Twentieth in the ’90s.