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Syndie TV Sales in Fall Stall

Nov 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

“Jane Pauley” may not be a ratings leader this season, but it is still a power player in the world of syndication for next season.

This November the rate of syndication sales for fall 2005 launches has stalled, with far fewer deals in place than last year, when NBC Universal, after talking about “Pauley” for months, had cleared the project in more than 75 percent of the country by late October.

By this time last year Paramount’s “The Insider,” Twentieth’s “Ambush Makeover” and Sony’s “Life & Style” were all set in stone to air the following September.

But in 2004, October came and went with little if any syndicated sales activity and no buys for new product. Warner Bros.’ sales staff saw the beginnings of a Tyra Banks project aimed at fall 2005 just last week, sources said. By the end of this week at least some station groups are expected to have seen presentations of the project with Ms. Banks and one from Paramount featuring fashion stylist and entertainment correspondent Steven Cojocaru.

One of the chief reasons insiders give for the slowdown in the syndicated process: They were caught by surprise by the performance of the once-highly touted “Jane Pauley,” which secured two-year deals under the assumption the show would succeed in the marketplace but has not lived up to expectations. The show premiered the week of Aug. 30 with a 1.6 national household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. It pulled a 1.6 the week ended Oct. 31.

“Because `Jane Pauley’ had two-year deals, and since the expectations were if it was certainly not going to be a hit, it would last at least two years, I don’t think people were preparing [for] if `Jane’ was a failure,”said Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming at Petry TV.

The show is a large piece of syndie real estate that many syndicators didn’t expect to become available, so they’ve been slower to pitch contingency plans than they would have been if they expected “Jane” to disappoint, insiders said. Traditionally, multitudes of shows are developed and piloted by the end of summer in anticipation of time slots opening up when shows fail.

“Jane” has not been canceled, but its lackluster ratings have emboldened competitors to focus on getting upgrades for existing shows during a 2005-06 season by snagging some of “Jane’s” time slots. The top contender for its best slots is most likely Telepictures’ “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which like “Pauley” airs on many NBC owned-and-operated stations, and to a lesser extent Buena Vista’s “The Tony Danza Show,” whose big market lineup primarily consists of ABC-owned stations. If “Ellen” gets the bulk of “Jane’s” upgrades, “Tony” could still benefit by taking “Ellen’s” old spots, which spurs on more chessboard moves as other shows vie for “Tony’s” time periods.

The apparent syndie stall is not just related to the fortunes of “Jane Pauley,” however.

In a universe where viewership has dropped so precipitously that shows with a 1 rating are now competitive, syndicators are more likely to work with a show that just a few years ago would have definitely been canceled. “Right now, yes, `Jane’ hasn’t delivered the ratings we had hoped,” said Sean O’Boyle, senior VP and national sales manager, NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution. “But it’s delivered a 1.6. `Ellen,’ which is deemed a hit, is delivering a 1.8 and a 2.0. There’s a small delineation between `Ellen’ and our performance on a national level.”

Continued consolidation in the industry also is a culprit, analysts said. Fewer players with pitching potential exist virtually every year. When “Jane” distributor NBC, for example, acquired earlier this year the U.S. entertainment assets of Vivendi Universal, Universal’s syndie division was folded into NBC’s after serving as one of the most prolific syndicators for years. NBCU’s “Home Delivery,” developed and sold as a Universal property, was canceled earlier this month, leaving “Jane” NBCU’s sole surviving freshman strip.

“There are a limited number of possible syndicators that are going to come out with projects in any given year,” said Bill Carroll, VP, programming, for Katz Television Group. “If we were to look at [National Association of Program Executives] 1995, we would see as many as three times as many projects, and maybe a third at most would get on the air. We are looking at circumstances that are normal in the new environment.”

Consolidation also means producers, many of which are part of large media conglomerates, are focusing on one or two projects-and controlling risk-as opposed to creating shows that may cannibalize each other.

“That’s why you’re not seeing 15 projects getting whittled down,” Mr. Carroll said. “You’ll see five projects getting whittled down to two or three. These are all publicly held companies having to justify what they’re doing. … if I have something on the air, if it’s perceived to be working, I can’t afford to dislodge that, even if I’m not making a bucket full of money.”

Mr. O’Boyle said the evolving marketplace and a new measurement system with the Local People Meters have also made people proceed with more caution when launching new projects. “You want to bring a really, really good idea to the marketplace rather than to just get something on the air,” he said.

But there is still a level of cannibalization that studios have to deal with. If NBCU decides to keep “Jane Pauley” around for another year, it could affect the clearances of its planned Vanessa Williams and Isaac Mizrahi projects. Telepictures has the same problem with “The Larry Elder Show,” and the prospect of introducing the Tyra Banks project.

“They are selling against themselves,” Ms. Losak said, “and that is a tough position to be in.”

If the CBS station group goes with the Cojocaru project from its sister Viacom company-a not unlikely prospect, since Mr. Cojocaru appears regularly on “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider,” which air on many of those stations-Telepictures would be more likely to seek out a deal with the NBC O&Os. Telepictures could make a deal with Viacom stations that ensures clearances on UPN stations in duopoly markets and a guaranteed CBS fallback.

Throw into the mix Viacom powerhouse King World, which still could roll out a project with “Trading Spaces” host Paige Davis and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” favorite, designer Nate Berkus. Among other projects, one wild card is Martha Stewart, who could be free of jail and probation by fall 2005 and might be interested in pursuing a new syndication project with her new partner, Mark Burnett.