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TV in Transition: New life for syndie players

Sep 30, 2002  •  Post A Comment

This ain’t your parents’ syndication company. Heck, this isn’t even your older brother’s business model.
Telepictures’ success with “The Bachelor” last season on ABC and newfound hits “Slamball” on TNN and “Spend It Fast” on WE has proved so far to be the pinnacle of a trend-in-the-making for the past few years. Syndicators, once relegated to specific daypart tasks, are now being tapped to create programs for the entire array of distribution platforms-network, cable and, of course, syndication.
“Quite simply, this has become a program-driven business,” said Jim Paratore, Telepictures president and executive VP of Warner Bros. Television
Distribution, “and we feel that, especially from a programming point of view, that we’re good at developing and executing reality-based programs. By applying our shows to their best possible outlet, we can take that expertise and develop ideas that could turn into something for prime time, cable, home video as well as syndication. This way, no matter which way the business goes, we are going to have a future in it.”
Since its inception more than a decade ago, Telepictures Productions has concentrated on the development and production of programming for the first-run syndication marketplace. Now the revitalized operation has expanded its activities to include all media (network, first-run syndication and cable) and all dayparts (daytime, prime time, access and late-night), something most syndicators have been or will soon be doing as well.
“Syndicators are coming to the agencies and saying, `Don’t just think of us as a syndicator. Think of us as a syndicator who can put money up to make a project more sellable, be it a daytime strip or a prime-time series,” said Sean Perry, head of alternative programming, Endeavor. “In the end, you will see distributors both independent and integrated trying to make ancillary revenue from cable or network, which further emphasizes that there are no more rules out there in this new economic model.”
Clearly, the expanding cable universe and harsh economic realities have provided new formulas for distributors, including the increasing number of dual-platform windows, such as the recent deal to add an MTV second run of Fox’s “Fastlane.” But first-run is still king, and the ongoing reality craze has turned attention to suppliers familiar with the nuts and bolts of the genre.
This past year in-house production units at Sony Pictures Television and Universal have also been incorporated under one umbrella designed to target the spectrum of outlets instead of focusing on just one. Sony Pictures Television tackled cable programming long before merging its television divisions under one banner.
With series such as “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” “Going to California” and “Worst Case Scenario” on pay and basic cable, Sony announced late last year that it would merge its network, cable and syndication units under the oversight of Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko. Company heads were quick to point out that the changing needs of television forced a more efficient restructuring, especially for an independent supplier.
“We have embraced the idea of developing for multiple platforms for a long time,” said Russ Krasnoff, president, programming and production, Sony Pictures Television. “Our syndication division began developing for cable five years ago, and today we have top-rated series on four cable networks. Now rather than dividing our efforts, we look at our series in development and decide which channel of distribution each project is best suited for: network, cable or syndication.”
That strategy and success have provided syndication units at NBC Enterprises and Twentieth Television with ammunition to develop out-of-the-box programs beyond the distributor’s traditional dayparts. Twentieth recently announced a new brain trust of programming executives designed to create series for just that purpose.
The appointment of Daniel Tibbets as Twentieth Television’s VP of production was part of an overhaul in the company’s development and programming ranks, including the creation of Fox Lab. That announcement was designed to highlight a new, more aggressive approach by the distributor to tackle programming for both syndication and cable.
“We are going to get busier [since] we have an aggressive agenda,” said Robb Dalton, president of programming and production for the company, after the announcement. “We see a lot of programming needs for our stations as well as other outlets and want to be their largest supplier of programming.”
Still, Telepictures currently remains at the forefront of the reality race with 321/2 hours of programming weekly, including two new rookie strips, “Caroline Rhea” and “Celebrity Justice,” which entered syndication in early September. In addition, season two of “ElimiDate,” the third season of “Street Smarts,” the fourth season of “Judge Mathis,” the fifth season of “Change of Heart,” the ninth season of “Extra” and the 12th season of “Jenny Jones” are all under way.
For cable, Telepictures is producing the game show “Spend It Fast” for WE: Women’s Entertainment and “Slamball” for TNN. Telepictures has produced two critically acclaimed 10-hour prime-time documentary miniseries, “The Wild West” and “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and the reality prime-time series “How’d They Do That?” The studio is also selling a talk show with Ellen DeGeneres for fall 2003.
“Slamball” has been showing solid growth in ratings for TNN, increasing its male 18 to 34 audience by 150 percent during its six-week run on TNN and tripling the time period average in the same demographic after moving to 9 p.m. on Saturday nights.
But it was “The Bachelor” that nabbed the most eyeballs this year, where it scored a series-best 7.3 rating/17 share average among adults 18 to 49 and 18.1 million total viewers for the hour during its April finale.
“ABC got the appeal of `The Bachelor’ right away,” Mr. Paratore said. “It clearly was one of those experiments that became a big business in its own right and helped position us to continue growing. Our success is really the formalization of something that we’ve been doing a long time. I’ve always worked hand-in-glove with [Warner Bros. Domestic Television President] Dick Robertson to ensure that we continue to expand our reach, spending a smart amount of money, creating quality programs and attracting upscale audiences.”
Do syndicators have a stronger insight into the needs of audiences? Not likely, Endeavor’s Mr. Perry said. Instead, the distributors provide a safe haven to go to tape before approaching a network.
“It isn’t that syndicators can judge the public’s palate any better than anyone else. If they could they would be richer than Roger King,” Mr. Perry said. “Instead, the advantage syndicators present in selling to cable or network is that they have the ability to develop and produce tape prior to walking into the network offices, which always gives them the advantage over the producer who walks in with just a piece of paper.”