NATPE the Real Deal for Sellers

Jan 31, 2005  •  Post A Comment

NATPE lived up to the hype.

In the buildup to last week’s National Association of Television Program Executives annual convention at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, players in the syndication business predicted a seller’s convention for the first time in years. With major deals bookending the week and several significant decisions made in between, the NATPE convention delivered three days of sales that in past years would have been completed well before station executives and syndicators rolled into Vegas.

For example, in a hastily called press conference held in Warner Bros.’ suite at Mandalay Bay’s THEhotel on Monday, the eve of NATPE, Warner Bros. announced a distribution deal with the Fox Television Stations group for the new talk strip “The Tyra Banks Show.”

Among other significant business done at NATPE, Buena Vista Television upped its clearance level for a sophomore season of “The Tony Danza Show” to more than 75 percent of the country and clinched an important time slot upgrade in Los Angeles. It will move this fall from its overnight run on KABC-TV to a daytime spot on one of the two Viacom-owned stations in Los Angeles, KCBS-TV or KCAL-TV.

HBO narrowed down its suitors late last week for an off-HBO run of “The Sopranos.” A decision about whether A&E or TNT will get the rights was expected imminently.

Deals made public at NATPE also gave distributors the confidence to announce two other strips were moving forward for fall 2005. NBC Universal is moving forward with its Martha Stewart project, which will air on the NBC owned-and-operated stations and is cleared in more than 70 percent of the country. Twentieth Television said its courtroom strip “Judge Alex,” which has been sold to the Fox stations group, has been cleared in more than 65 percent of the country and is a firm go for fall.

The end of the NATPE convention, however, did not mean deals were in place for all of the high-profile first-run projects being offered to stations. Twentieth Television’s talk strip “The Suze Orman Show” and Sony Picture Television’s project with Robin Quivers were still without station launch groups as the convention drew to a close. Twentieth’s newsmagazine “A Current Affair” has a deal to launch in spring 2005 on the Fox Stations, but has not been declared a firm go.

Still, John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television and a NATPE co-chairman, said the lack of a launch group sale last week hasn’t stopped the sale of “The Robin Quivers Show.” He attributed the project’s sales status to its relatively late entry into the syndication sales season.

“We’ve done a ton of deals,” Mr. Weiser said. “We’re just not solid on our launch group yet. The second week of January was the only time anyone has even seen a tape of Robin Quivers. It takes a little bit of time. Rarely do you get an immediate reaction.”

Mr. Weiser declined to list any markets where “The Robin Quivers Show” has sold, saying the company wanted to announce clearances only after a launch group for the show was confirmed.

One of the station groups that has been mentioned as a possible home for “Robin” is Tribune Broadcasting, which appears to have time slot availability, particularly since “Home Delivery” was canceled earlier this season.

Sources at the convention said the group is looking to incorporate a show that is compatible with NBCU’s “Jerry Springer,” which performs well for those stations. Neither “Suze” nor “Robin” have been billed as such. In fact, it’s been made clear that Ms. Quivers, known largely for her role on racy radio program “The Howard Stern Show,” is not going to be along the lines of “Stern.” However, syndicators are known to be flexible in adjusting their formats to meet the needs of a launch group, especially if it means the project will get a green light.

“My sense is that Sony is willing to craft `The Robin Quivers Show’ to the particular needs of the launch group,” said Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group VP and director of group programming. “They have as much as said that. If they were looking for a show that was a companion to `Maury’ and `Jerry [Springer],’ Sony would be willing to do that, if that’s what they [Tribune] are looking for and they believe in the talent.”

Mr. Weiser could not be reached by press time for comment about tweaking the show. Marc Schacher, VP of programming for Tribune Broadcasting Co., also could not be reached for comment by press time. The Fox stations are a potential buyer for “Robin.”

The “Tyra” deal sparked interest among many NATPE convention attendees, in part because it was the first time since the failed talk strip featuring Queen Latifah that the two companies have worked together.

It represents a step toward Fox buying more product from outside its company. The deal requires Fox to pay license fees something the Fox stations have resisted for years. Fox has bought few shows from outside suppliers in recent years, relying mostly on its syndie arm, Twentieth Television. When it has bought outside the company, it’s generally been on a straight barter basis.

A source also indicated that Fox would not have any equity in “Tyra.” In recent years station groups that have a syndication arm have demanded a stake in a show’s profits if they were buying from an outside syndicator.

Fox-owned stations in 19 of the group’s 25 markets, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, picked up the show. In markets with duopolies, “Tyra” may run on one of the two stations or both. Jim Paratore, executive VP of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution and president of Telepictures Productions, said the show was cleared in 70 percent of the country and should be cleared at 90 percent by September.

Lachlan Murdoch, deputy chief operating officer of News Corp. and chairman of the Fox stations group, surprised even some Warner Bros. staffers by attending the “Tyra” press conference. Mr. Murdoch acknowledged industry insiders’ surprise that he bought content from Warner Bros. as opposed to picking up a project from corporate cousin Twentieth Television, which is still out pitching its own strip “The Suze Orman Show” to station groups.

“We take the shows we think are going to work best,” he said about Fox’s decision to pick up “Tyra.” “You look at each show and project on its value.”

Mr. Carroll said the Fox-Telepictures deal has industrywide implications.

“What it means is that for other than Fox-produced product, there is now a potential home on the Fox stations,” Mr. Carroll said. “And not only are they providing a clearance, they are supporting those shows by providing a license fee. That is a real positive. That means shows that might not have been launched in the past might get launched.”

The deal might also have implications for the off-network sale of Warner Bros.’ “Two and a Half Men,” which is expected to be offered for sale later this year and be one of the biggest shows for sale at NATPE 2006. The Tribune stations and the Fox stations are the two biggest buyers in the off-network sitcom business, since both run blocks of comedies in access. Tribune has bought into several of the biggest Warner-distributed titles, including “Friends” and “Will & Grace.” If indeed the “Tyra” deal signals Fox is more open to other companies’ product than it seemed to be in recent years, Fox may become a true rival to Tribune in getting “Men,” considered one of the only top comedies in the off-net pipeline.

“Men,” which currently follows “Everybody Loves Raymond” on CBS Mondays, will move to “Raymond’s” 9 p.m. slot in September. Warner Bros. is expected to take the show to market around November, after it presumably has had time to perform even stronger in its new home than it does now, thus raising “Men’s” value (the risk, of course, is betting that audiences will continue to embrace the show when it moves to 9 p.m.).

In addition to station groups, cable networks were at NATPE looking for programming.

Syndicators said they liked having back-to-back meetings in Las Vegas with the acquisition executives from the cable networks. “It puts more pressure on them,” s
aid one salesman. “They know that if they don’t do the deal, when they walk out of here, someone else will.”

But cable executives said they were there to take meetings, but didn’t expect to actually do deals during the convention. “I’m talking. But I’m not going to do anything here,” said one.

Perhaps the highest-profile property being offered to cable networks at NATPE was HBO’s “The Sopranos.” Numerous cable networks, including FX, Spike TV, Lifetime and USA, have eyed the syndication rights to the series, which is expected to fetch north of $2 million per episode, sources said.

It is unclear whether the deal will be exclusive or a weekend broadcast syndication window will be made available to local stations. The off-HBO run is expected to launch in fall 2006, after the final season of “The Sopranos” has concluded on HBO.

Spokespeople for HBO, A&E and TNT declined comment late Friday.

Among rookie first-run strips, two shows that saw the most action were Paramount’s “Entertainment Tonight” spinoff “The Insider” and “Danza.”

Last Thursday John Nogawski, president of Paramount Domestic Television, announced that “Insider,” the highest-rated of the rookie strips, has been renewed on the CBS owned-and-operated stations for an additional two years, to 2008.

Mr. Nogawski said stations are “seeing the numbers,” and that the past few weeks of award shows and breaking entertainment news proves “The Insider’s” viability.

“These are the absolute reasons that the entertainment newsmagazine is in business,” Mr. Nogawski said. “They are upgrading the show, they are pairing it with `Entertainment Tonight,’ where they own `ET.’ They are giving us double runs where they haven’t already been giving us double runs.”

John Bryan, executive VP and general sales manager for Buena Vista Television, said since the show is shot live and can be updated right before going to air, stations with a strong news presence are a good fit for the show.

Although no deal is in place in Chicago, Mr. Bryan said, a station like WGN-TV fits that profile.

“They have [Buena Vista’s] `Live [With Regis and Kelly}.’ They have [`Who Wants to Be a] `Millionaire.’ They have news,” he said at the convention before completing the L.A. deal. “That’s the environment I’d like to see `Tony [Danza]’ in.”

Among the other rookie strips, none have gotten an official green light for a second season, though NBC Universal is said to be close to giving the go-ahead to “Starting Over.” NBC Universal is already making plans for a multicity tour to promote the show for the February sweeps and spring.

But for NBC Universal’s highest-profile strip, “The Jane Pauley Show,” a second season is not inevitable. Even with a two-year commitment from stations made last season, it is not certain the show will return.

“I would answer this for any of our shows,” said Frederick Huntsberry, executive VP of NBC Universal Television Distribution, “nothing is ever for sure. We have a process where we sit down every month, the entire management team. We look at every single show of ours. We discuss where we are today. `Jane’ gets reviewed just like any other show.”

He said the company plans to launch some promotions in February during sweeps, “and then we will reevaluate what the situation looks like after that.”

Mr. Weiser said Sony is taking a similar approach with its two first-years, “Life & Style” and “Pat Croce: Moving In,” and that in the current market it makes sense to wait and see until after NATPE before making a decision.

“Both shows are renewed right now in 60-plus percent of the country,” he said. “We’ve really beefed up the promotional campaigns for February sweeps. We’re planning on producing both shows. Because there are so few new shows being offered, there is even a greater appetite for these shows.”

Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive VP and director of global research integration at Initiative Media, said in the current marketplace a measured approach for shows on the bubble complements the pre-NATPE deals that help drive business at the convention. “We’re sort of getting used to the fact that NATPE is half a foregone conclusion and half is `wait and see the February book,”‘ she said.

Melissa Grego and Jon Lafayette contributed to this report.