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Seeking to stand out

Aug 26, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Several seasons of viewer erosion have brought the threshold for first-run success in syndication down to a 2.0 rating. This year, however, the pressure to produce a hit may be greater than ever.
Some distributors are responding with pledges of ratings as high as 3.5, while others are preparing for the fall season with delicate financial models designed to produce profits at more modest numbers.
In the ever-changing cyclical shift of hot genres, talk shows and game shows will replace the court and relationship show frenzy of past seasons. Six straight talk shows, a couple of hybrids and two high-profile game shows are on tap for fall.
“Every year we get excited, but the fact is that there hasn’t really been a breakthrough show since `Judy’ and `Rosie,”’ said Ed Wilson, president of NBC Enterprises. “We try to give ourselves a better chance to have a breakthrough season every year by doing some innovative things. But the fact remains that you never know what to expect. We feel like we’ve done everything we can do and now it’s up to the viewers.”
Syndicators are moving forward with the chance to reinvigorate a jaded daytime audience facing the departure of “Oprah” and possibly other veterans within the next few years. This season, the order has been to look inward and tap synergistic resources, in some cases creating spinoffs such as “Dr. Phil,” “The Caroline Rhea Show” and “Celebrity Justice.”
Other companies tapped recent network series (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “The Wayne Brady Show”), talents from company-owned cable channels (“Chris Matthews” and “The Rob Nelson Show”) and even local station successes (“Good Day Live”) in search of the elusive hit. In theory, this should help studios accomplish something seemingly contradictory: Find something new, yet already proven to be tried and true.
“The concern we’ve had the past couple of years is that we’ve come out optimistic and it’s turned out to be too optimistic,” said Bill Carroll, VP of programming at Katz. “Of course, this has been aided by programming difficulties such as 9/11 last year and the Olympics and the election controversy the season before. Now studios have to look at the economics involved and decide whether a traditional format or something new and inspired from cable or local television makes more sense for their company.”
Mr. Carroll said that although recent history has shown that most shows don’t premiere at previous time-period levels, that doesn’t mean that building audiences in a multichannel universe is out of the question.
“I think the consensus is that there are probably two shows that stations are taking a hard look at this coming season, even if it is as competition-`Dr. Phil’ and `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,”’ he said. “These are shows that generally have the time periods and profile to earn audience sampling right off the bat. `John Walsh’ is another that could draw ratings. Frankly, from where I sit, I’d be thrilled if any of these could premiere at a 3 or a 2 and change, because it would be a great sign in terms of the health of the syndication industry. The others could probably draw around a 2 and have a healthy foundation to work from.”
Talk shows
The highest-profile series to hit the airwaves this fall will come from the talk show ranks, where six strips are preparing to thrust their hosts in front of finicky audiences. With the end of “Oprah’s” long reign atop the rankings finally in sight, this season could see the launch of a successor to the throne.
As far as potential successors go, King World’s “Dr. Phil” is being set up as “Oprah’s” likely torchbearer. Produced by Harpo and Paramount, the series is already selling out audiences, not to mention advertising, and has earned prime real estate on its stations, generally airing right before or right after “Oprah.”
“This show demonstrated that if you have the right project with the right star, syndicators can still go out and get those prime time periods,” said Paramount Domestic Television President of Programming Greg Meidel. “He has already shown me that there is no doubt he can handle five days a week by himself. He is the concept of the show, which makes him different from anything we’ve launched in the past.”
Taking on a Phil Donahue approach toward daytime viewers will be NBC Enterprises’ “The John Walsh Show” and Twentieth Television’s “The Rob Nelson Show.” Both were quickly sold to their studios’ station groups and both are hoping to re-energize the talk genre.
“Rob has already brought this amazing energy to the series and is perfect for a show this ambitious in nature,” said Robb Dalton, president of programming and production at Twentieth Television. “Having said that, it’s clear Rob Nelson is not the favorite in a race with a lot of sexy names coming out. In light of that I like our odds a lot. This industry isn’t about who wins coming out of the gate, it’s about getting shows that will find the largest possible audience but with an economic model that works. We’re going to have to earn our sampling and once we do I’m confident Rob will be a contender.”
NBC Enterprises’ “John Walsh” won’t have to fight as hard for recognition since its host has already earned a reputation by hosting “America’s Most Wanted.” NBC’s Mr. Wilson said the show has an established star, an accomplished producing team and a budget almost twice that of other talk shows. Additionally, it will feature an NBC news piece at the beginning of every show on the day’s topic.
“What we’ve tried to do is take this incredible brand that is John Walsh and create something that could one day become a hot news lead-in for our stations,” Mr. Wilson said.
Two other series will offer a difficult-to-master talk/variety format. Telepictures’ “Caroline Rhea” and Buena Vista’s “Wayne Brady” are both attempting to bring back the format in a big way. “Brady” brings the skills of the “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” star combined with the producing talents of Robert Morton and Bernie Brillstein.
Meanwhile, Caroline Rhea takes the hot seat of departing daytime fixture Rosie O’Donnell. Telepictures President Jim Paratore said he sees Rosie’s departure as an opportunity to expand the franchise.
“You have to be willing to spend money to produce high-quality programs that will attract audiences back to television,” he said. “That said, you have to keep an eye on the economics of the show. We felt it was important for us to keep the “Rosie” franchise alive with “Caroline Rhea” and were able to justify the economics of it. When you look at the business today, it’s clear that a 2 rating has become a threshold of success. However, it depends on what kind of 2 rating you are willing to get-some will feel like a 4 because of a sound financial model. Others will feel like a 0.5.”
Finally, Tribune is putting its faith in “Beyond With James Van Praagh.” Although many have compared the upcoming show to another program featuring a psychic, “Crossing Over With John Edward,” Tribune Entertainment President and CEO Dick Askin said he saw an opportunity for his stations with a show unlike any others in the market.
“This is probably the strongest launch from a sales perspective we’ve had since `Geraldo,”’ Mr. Askin said. “We ended up consulting with our stations and developing an economic model that was different from anything we’ve done before. We decided to turn it from an hour to a half-hour so we could double-run and grab a higher rating. Plus, we are entering this as a co-production with Fireworks, which believes that the show will have global appeal and will sell it internationally.”
Game/relationship shows
The upcoming launches of “Millionaire” and Columbia TriStar’s “Pyramid” will bring two familiar daytime faces to the game show genre. “Millionaire” host Meredith Vieira will take the chair for distributor Buena Vista, while Donny Osmond returns to the small screen for “Pyramid.”
However, they will not be the only name talent entering the genre. King World announced that celebriti
es ranging from Ellen DeGeneres to Alec Baldwin will rotate as center square on “Hollywood Squares.” Former “Home Improvement” star Richard Karn, meanwhile, will play mediator on “Family Feud” for Tribune.
“Right now `Family Feud’ is our most successful strip and it was imperative for us to find a host who was relatable to the audience as well as the contestants,” Mr. Askin said. “We’ve done a complete revamp on the set and feel that we have a show that can play well in access across the country.”
On the relationship side of the field, Aisha Tyler has departed Universal’s “The 5th Wheel” as the series will undergo a slight format change and tape without a host. Telepictures’ “Change of Heart” will bring back former host Chris Jagger in place of Lynn Koplitz. Finally, Twentieth Television will continue to experiment with “Ex-treme Dating,” hosted by Jillian Barberie.
Off-network strips
On the off-network side, four major sitcoms will attempt to make a splash. Carsey-Werner-Mandabach’s “That ’70s Show” is cleared in 98 percent of the country, with many of the Fox-owned UPN stations adding it to their lineups. Warner Bros.’ “Will & Grace” is set in 90 percent of the country, including on Tribune stations. And Twentieth will launch “Dharma & Greg” and “The Hughleys.”
“Each of these shows have pretty strong launch groups behind them and reach slightly different audiences, so this is one of the most diverse crops of off-network comedies I’ve seen in recent years,” Mr. Carroll said. “I think that most station programmers believe that two strong adult ensemble comedies are coming in the form of `Will & Grace’ and `Dharma & Greg.’ Then there is an edgier show with the Fox sensibility in `That `70s Show’ while `The Hughleys’ is seen as a good urban audience play. What makes this crop also stand out is that they tend to reach a younger audience than what we’ve seen from other past off-network entries. It should lead to some good ratings stories this fall.”
Alternative
Warner Bros. opted to take a popular segment of newsmagazine “Extra” and turn it into its own show, “Celebrity Justice.”
“`Celebrity Justice’ is going to be a sleeper,” said Telepictures’ Mr. Paratore. “The stations that saw it snapped it up right off the bat because this is material the audience loves. I guess we got somewhat lucky. There are a lot of high-profile trials coming up, including Robert Blake, Winona Ryder and Jayson Williams.”
Two shows that don’t seem to fit into any genre-Paramount’s “Life Moments” and Twentieth’s “Good Day Live”-could signify what may be down the road for syndication.
“Let’s face it, more people are watching cable in daytime than broadcast, so it was time to take the old thinking hat off and try something new,” Paramount’s Mr. Meidel said about “Life Moments,” which presents first-person, cinema verite-style stories about women’s life experiences. “We also had to figure a way to produce quality programs with very efficient cost controls. By selling it with a cable window in the afternoon we have generated three revenue streams, which is enough money to produce a show of this kind.”
“Life Moments” will allow local stations to use their own hosts, if desired, and is already prompting potential copycat series.
“We are hitting a chord that hasn’t been attempted in syndication,” said Tara Sandler, executive producer of all Pie Town programming and co-founder of Pietown Productions, which produces “Life Moments.” “This kind of series already has a proven track record in cable, and we’re excited to be able to provide quality shows to broadcast audiences as well.”