The ice has broken.
Weeks after the first-run syndication market for fall 2005 appeared frozen in uncertainty, syndicators started making major decisions last week about what they intend to have on the air next fall.
For example, last Wednesday NBC Universal announced at a press conference it is developing a syndicated one-hour strip with the incarcerated domestic diva Martha Stewart. The project has been cleared on the NBC owned-and-operated stations.
Just the day before Twentieth Television announced it is bringing back the granddaddy of the syndicated magazine tabloids, “A Current Affair,” and has secured a deal with the co-owned Fox owned-and-operated stations to air the show.
At the same time, other syndicators are officially pulling back on projects they once considered for fall 2005.
Buena Vista has been developing a series with fashion designer Vera Wang but confirmed late last week it will not move forward with a “Wang” strip for next season. Tribune Entertainment, which had made a deal with veteran producer George Schlatter, has decided to hold a relaunch of his 1979 NBC prime-time reality series “Real People,” until fall 2006, a Tribune spokesman said.
And in a decision that Paramount Domestic Television hoped it wouldn’t have to make, a Steven Cojocaru project has been postponed until 2006 due to his recently diagnosed health concerns.
Among other studios that have narrowed down their prospects, Telepictures is out selling its Tyra Banks talk show but has not moved forward with strips headlined by Mo’Nique and Steve Harvey. Besides “A Current Affair,” Twentieth Television also confirmed it is moving forward with a half-hour court strip with Florida Judge Alex Nogales but acknowledged that it is only in development on a talk project fronted by financial guru Suze Orman. NBC Universal finds its two projects, shows hosted by Isaac Mizrahi and Vanessa Williams, now on hold, at least in terms of the 2005-06 season.
Martha Stewart Redux
Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television, confirmed his company’s project with Ms. Stewart is its sole first-run strip debuting fall 2005.
“At this point the only show we know we are bringing in terms of first-run is Martha for fall 2005,” he said, before dismissing speculation that the green light for Ms. Stewart automatically means that freshman talk strip “The Jane Pauley Show” will not return next season.
“They are not linked to each other,” Mr. Wallach said. “Fall ’05 is a development season where there’s not a lot out there. The stations are looking for successful shows and shows that will grow their business. We’ll see what happens.”
Ms. Stewart’s project, which is currently unnamed, will be developed with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and reality TV king Mark Burnett, who said at the press conference the new show would be shot in front of a live audience. Because she is serving jail time, Ms. Stewart is prohibited from making deals. She is expected to start working on the project once she is released from a federal prison in West Virginia in March and has served five months of house arrest.
Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz Television Group, said the return of Ms. Stewart is the return of a proven commodity in syndication. In his view, her new partners can help her take her show in a new direction.
“She has Mark Burnett, she has Susan Lyne [Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s new CEO],” he said. “She has other people to advise her how to make the show more accessible to a broader audience. It’s going to get huge sampling. They are never going to make her lovable, but they can make her likable. And some people like her the way she was.”
He also said Ms. Stewart’s previous clearances are the natural place for her to restart her syndication career. King World distributed Ms. Stewart’s previous syndicated strip, “Martha Stewart Living,” which aired on several CBS owned-and-operated stations in the 9 a.m. time period before she was convicted of lying to investigators about a stock sale.
“They are likely to seek daytime clearances looking at where it has been most successful in the past,” Mr. Carroll said. “It is unlikely Martha will be taking on [“The Oprah Winfrey Show”] and `Dr. Phil’ in the beginning.”
In regards to “A Current Affair,” Mr. Carroll said the Fox owned-and-operated stations aren’t likely to use the new strip in prime access but look toward other time periods in terms of scheduling.
“Right now they have such a strong sitcom lineup that access may not be the best place,” he said. “It had its initial success as a late-fringe vehicle. That may be where they put it. It could go against network news. There are a number of places they could put it.”
For both Ms. Stewart’s project and “A Current Affair,” Mr. Carroll said the return of a known brand is a smart way to go, since you are building on something viewers are familiar with.
“It’s better to have the prior acceptance and then do an updated version of something that the audience knows and identifies with,” he said.
John Nogawski, president of Paramount Domestic Television, told TelevisionWeek last week the company is reluctantly holding off developing for Mr. Cojocaru because the “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider” correspondent must undergo a kidney transplant within the next month and will require weeks of recuperation.
“Our No. 1 priority for Steven is his health,” Mr. Nogawski said. “He continues to work for us on `ET’ and `The Insider,’ but we really have to see to his best recovery. So we’re going to put the project on hold until 2006. There is no point in trying to bring this to [the National Association of Television Program Executives conference]. He’s our best salesperson. There’s no sense in trying to sell this without having him standing next to me.”
Mr. Nogawski said the extra time will allow the company to decide how best to position Mr. Cojocaru in the marketplace.
“There are a number of things we could do once he recovers,” he said. “Whether it’s a mid-season type of thing; it could be a cable play or a traditional fall 2006 launch. There are a lot things we would explore, and we will explore.”
Looking at the positive, Mr. Nogawski said the company will instead focus on the off-network sales for the sitcom “One on One” and the latest “Star Trek” franchise “Enterprise,” as well as extending commitments on “ET” spinoff “The Insider.”
“We’ve never been a company that has emphasized that we have to launch something every year,” he said. “We tend to really like to time the market. I really did feel the market was ready for Cojo. I’m sure there will be a hole for him to be placed in the following year.”