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Syndie Shortage Stifles Stations

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

A dearth of first-run syndicated fare-which appears to be deepening by the week-has left local stations that rely on the programming scrambling to fill their schedules. When the 2005-06 season begins, stations will have fewer first-run programming options than ever before.

With news last week that Twentieth Television’s “Ambush Makeover” and Warner Bros.’ “The Larry Elder Show” were being added to a crowded graveyard of first-run strips that didn’t make it to a second season, stations are being forced to devise scheduling solutions beyond airing multiple runs of current shows and turning to more off-net fare.

In addition to “Ambush” and “Elder,” Sony’s “Life & Style” and “Pat Croce: Moving In” are not returning for sophomore seasons. Neither is the season’s highest-profile failure, NBC Universal’s “The Jane Pauley Show.” In addition, Twentieth’s “Texas Justice” will not return for an additional season.

There are surprisingly few shows to fill the void, as first-run syndicators face mounting marketing and distribution costs and increasing odds against success.

“It’s a strange year in regard to lack of production,” said John Keyes, program services manager for Cox Communication’s WFTV-TV and WRDQ-TV in Orlando, Fla. He pointed out that one debut strip highly touted for fall 2005, Sony Pictures Television’s “Robin Quivers Show,” has yet to announce any clearances or a production commitment.

As stations and distributors start to acknowledge that, by many accounts, the supply of first-run product is expected to only get scarcer, buyers and sellers have started to dramatically adjust their approaches to the syndication business.

For one thing, syndicators have started seizing what new opportunities they can, including voraciously harvesting their libraries and playing up the versatility of their existing first-run fare.

Stations, already double-pumping existing product to plug scheduling holes, are now turning to options such as ramping up longer local news shows and entertainment production. They are also more likely to listen to syndicators’ library pitches.

How stations plan for this fall and beyond varies widely and depends in large part on whether they are part of a big station group that managed to snap up the handful of strips scheduled to help take up the slack.

Among the new series offering five fresh episodes each week and set to debut this fall are: Warner Bros.’ “The Tyra Banks Show,” NBC Universal’s Martha Stewart project, Twentieth’s court show “Judge Alex” and the revival of the newsmagazine “A Current Affair,” which debuted on several Fox television stations last month.

“It’s thin,” Mr. Keyes said. “I don’t think ‘Robin’ is going forward. There is no momentum. There is no more that I have heard of. It looks like there are pretty slim pickings out there.”

Sony declined comment for this story. But even if “Robin Quivers” makes it onto schedules in the fall, Mr. Keyes said, the problem of too many time periods and not enough shows is still very real, especially since so many of the debuting strips are spoken for. NBC Universal’s owned-and-operated stations are getting the Martha Stewart project, while the Fox stations have secured “Alex,” “Affair” and “Tyra.”

“You’ve got so many things that went down in this market that people didn’t have an opportunity to grab at,” he said. “It makes it tough for people who don’t have launch groups. It means you had to make your moves very smart and very early.”

Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming at Petry TV, said there is unlikely to be one solution across all stations.

“It’s not going to be a trend,” she said. “It is going to be a whole bunch of things stations do on an individual basis.”

Well-priced off-network product also is an option, something syndicators have already noticed. Sony announced soon after the National Association of Television Program Executives convention in January it would offer its 1990s sitcoms “Mad About You” and “The Nanny” on a barter-only basis.

Bringing out off-network product makes sense for syndicators, since it not only keeps them in contact with stations, it brings in much-needed barter revenue that is no longer coming from first-run programming.

The sale may not even be solely off-network programming. Despite canceling “Ambush Makeover,” Twentieth may offer the 300 produced episodes of “Makeover” as library product. In its release Twentieth said it hoped the strip “can continue to serve a valuable purpose in today’s competitive market.”

“There is tremendous interest to sell it,” Bob Shaw, senior VP of programming for Acme Stations, said of evergreen product by the studios. “And there is tremendous interest from stations’ points of view because of no cash outlay.”

The current state of affairs raises the issue of more home-grown programming. Mr. Keyes said he is currently running a weekend half-hour called “Hot Topics” that is produced out of the Cox station in Atlanta. “You may see a little more of that,” he said of station-produced fare.

But Mr. Shaw said it is unlikely local stations will return to the model of yesteryear, when original local programming was scattered across the dayparts.

“There are a lot of indicators that suggest pouring those kinds of dollars into those kinds of shows doesn’t make a return on investment,” he said, noting that the television universe is in a very different place from when local programming was more common. “You also have the influence of the penetration of cable.”

The current climate could hold new opportunities for some kinds of strips, Mr. Shaw said, like “Elimidate” and “Blind Date,” which can perform in late fringe but also garner ratings in daytime, particularly on Fox, The WB and UPN affiliates.

“They have proven themselves to have some utility in daytime as well as late fringe,” he said. “It probably means these have a better chance for longevity than those that can only play in a daytime schedule.”

He also said that in the short term he isn’t worried that too much double-running and relying on off-network product viewers have seen over and over will kill what’s left of the syndicated audience, but there are still long-term concerns.

“At some point you have to come up with innovative programming that is also cost-effective, and so far no one has found the key to that puzzle,” he said.

Still, Mr. Shaw isn’t holding his breath for syndicators and stations to crack that code in the immediate future. He said that with ratings declining in daytime, plus costs rising for producers of first-run product, the financial divide between creating a compelling show for the marketplace and being able to afford the costs is so wide, it makes sense for studios to sit on their hands instead of developing new strips, even with the need.

“It is different than any previous year that I recall in terms of scarcity of product in daytime,” Mr. Shaw said. “My sense is that for those producers and distributors, it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain [costs].”

Ms. Losak said the financial pinch is so pronounced-and not just because of sagging ratings and rising costs. The trickling revenue streams have also made it harder to launch new shows.

“What’s happening now is directly because of the soft spot and soft barter markets,” she said. “Stations don’t feel like they have the money to support first-run programming, and producers don’t feel they have the money to produce first-run programming.”

Jim Paratore, executive VP of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution and president of Telepictures Productions, said eventually the market will correct itself, once the need for new product becomes so great the financial barriers can finally be overcome.

“Over time it creates new opportunities,” he said of the dearth of programming. “You can’t double-run forever. When the right hours come to the marketplace, they still find a home.”