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Missing in Action

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Action hours, once a staple of first-run TV syndication, are going the way of the dinosaur. The latest evidence is the imminent cancellation of two shows, Adventure Inc. and Once A Thief.
In addition, not one new scripted action hour has been sold to stations for this fall.
That leaves MGM’s She Spies and, according to a Western International executive, Starhunter as the only new scripted weekly series launched this season set for a sophomore season. Veterans Andromeda and Mutant X also will be back, to mark the only originals in the genre to air in syndication.
That represents a dramatic change from only a few seasons ago when such shows as Xena, Hercules and Relic Hunter were first-run weekly staples, generating healthy ratings, significant international sales and even a stream of revenue from licensing and merchandising.
The change is in part because there are simply fewer slots available, as highly rated off-network hours like ER and X-Files elbow first-run shows out of the already scarce key weekend time slots. Less than a decade ago, before the advent of the newer networks like The WB and UPN, weeklies in syndication often played in prime time during the week on independent stations that did not have network programming.
That isn’t the only problem. Foreign sales, which covered a significant portion of production costs, are also way off from their peak, as international broadcasters face tough economic times and global audiences show a preference for home grown product, even if it isn’t as slick as the American series.
Ultimately, however, the latest cancellations are primarily a result of anemic ratings (see chart). At least some of the drop-off could be attributed to increased competition by war coverage, analysts said.
Adventure Inc. averaged a 1.9 household rating this season. In adults 18 to -49, the series starring Michael Biehn (Aliens and The Abyss), has pulled a 1.1 score, according to Nielsen. The show’s ratings performances are despite a top-notch pedigree. The show was distributed domestically by Tribune Entertainment and by Fireworks Entertainment in international markets. Among the behind-the-scenes talents involved was feature film producer Gale Anne Hurd, whose credits include the feature Armageddon and upcoming The Hulk.
October Moon will yank Once a Thief following its sole year in syndication. Thief pulled a season-to-date average of 0.7 in households. It was originally called John Woo’s Once A Thief. Tribune’s Beastmaster, and New Line’s The Lost World are now scheduled to run only as repeats during the 2003-2004 season.
MGM/NBC’s She Spies, which stars Natasha Henstridge, is as much about being based on a different economic model as on ratings for the sexy show about three female secret agents. It gained exposure on the NBC network last summer before launching in syndication.
That leaves time periods to be filled with the bevy of off-net series. This season will see the off-net debuts of Warner Bros.’ The West Wing and Twentieth Television’s Angel, both of which have cleared well. The 2004-05 season will see the syndicated launches of series such as CSI while the mother lode of off-net hours is expected to arrive for the 2005-06 season. That fall will see the likes of Twentieth’s 24, Universal’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Buena Vista’s Alias, Warner Bros.’ Smallville and Paramount’s Star Trek: Enterprise all come to the airwaves.
The risk and investment involved in launching first-run action hours has simply started to appear too hefty to most syndicators-most of which have completely exited the action hour business-especially when considerably less costly weekly hour alternatives can be so profitable. Weekly versions of strips, off-network series and compilation shows bring distributors handsome profitssimilar, if not better, ratings. Sources, for example, said Paramount’s inexpensively produced reality action video show Maximum Exposure, which this season consisted mainly of repurposed library footage, brought Paramount handsome profits. The show was even down 16% in the ratings.
“Stations are pretty much going to pay the same whether it’s reality or scripted, unless it’s already been proven successful,” said one agent dealing with weekly series. “So from a distributor’s point of view, it’s clear that there’s more economic value in reality or off-net with scripted unfortunately becoming antiquated. Look at what happened to the syndicated sitcom genre like Small Wonder and Mama’s Family-, they’re extinct.”
On the first-run side, reality continues to pick up the slack. Paramount will launch Unexplained Mysteries this fall as a reality hour, hoping to add to the millions generated from Maximum Exposure, while Western will launch The Talent Agency, an American Idol-like spin as amateur performers compete to win cash and a business contract. Among the half-hours set to debut are Telco’s Missing in which the FBI and other law enforcement agencies help find missing children and adults.