New Day for Syndie Strip

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

NBC Universal Television Distribution’s syndicated reality strip “Starting Over” is going coed for its third season. And in what is shaping up to be a make-or-break year for the show-and the division-it has garnered station and time period upgrades in some key markets.

During the first two seasons, “Starting Over” featured groups of women with emotional, physical or relationship challenges who move into a large house together and work with a staff of advisers. For the first two weeks of the new season, “Starting Over” is scheduled to begin with a “Relationship Boot Camp,” which for the first time will introduce men to the cast. Four couples are brought to the house to work out their relationship issues together.

A strong start this season for “Starting Over” could provide a significant boost to NBCU Television Distribution, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group. “Given the fact that they have had a number of attempts that have not been able to stick-they had ‘The Other Half’; they had ‘John Walsh’; they had ‘Jane Pauley’-their batting average is no better, no worse than the rest of the industry,” Mr. Carroll said. “But you need to have some degree of consistency and you need to find a part of the marketplace to concentrate on.”

Besides “Starting Over,” other NBC Universal returning first-run strips include “Access Hollywood,” “Maury,” “Jerry Springer” and “Blind Date.” NBC Universal is also distributing only one of two new talk strips this fall, Martha Stewart’s “Martha.” In addition, the company is in development for a fall 2006 talk project for “Will & Grace” star Megan Mullally.

Along with the creative changes come some significant upgrades and additions in the top 50 markets. For fall 2005 “Starting Over” has been newly cleared in Baltimore, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Tenn., and Providence, R.I., and is getting upgrades in 16 markets, including Philadelphia, where it is moving from the Tribune-owned WB affiliate WPHL-TV at 2 p.m. (ET) to the 11 a.m. spot on the NBC owned-and-operated WCAU-TV, replacing “The Jane Pauley Show.”

In a number of markets where “Starting Over” was bumped in the 2004-05 season for “Jane Pauley,” particularly on NBC owned-and-operated stations and network affiliates, the show is making a return.

“Starting Over’s” clearances have improved beyond regaining some of “Jane Pauley’s” time slots, Sean O’Boyle, senior VP and national sales manager for the company, said. “Clearly, our year-three lineup is better than year one,” Mr. O’Boyle said. “It’s significantly better than year two.”

The fact that “Starting Over” is still on the air is a milestone in today’s syndication market, Mr. Carroll said. “Success is defined in the current environment by a show coming back for a second season. Most of the shows in daytime right now have been on 10 years. It is not an environment where new shows come on and flourish.”

Mr. O’Boyle, who calls “Starting Over” a “reality soap opera,” said the show’s new daytime clearances on NBC affiliates makes it much more promotable. He used as an example Atlanta’s WXIA-TV, where “Starting Over” is moving from a morning time slot to 3 p.m. as the lead-out for the network’s “Passions.”

“It’s now coming out of a soap,” he said, noting that the station can promote NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” “Passions” and “Starting Over” as an uninterrupted block.

“Starting Over” has never been an overall ratings powerhouse. For its 2003-04 debut season, the show scored a 1.0 national household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. “Starting Over” grew 10 percent for 2004-05 to a 1.1. While other shows with similar or even better ratings did not return, “Starting Over” got the backing from NBCU based on its younger demographics, which makes up a major portion of its audience. While the show is down in women 18 to 34 by 10 percent from its first to second season (0.9 versus 1.0), “Starting Over” is up 13 percent in both women 18 to 49 and women 25 to 54 (0.9 versus 0.8) for the season.

“In a day and age where stations live and die by demos, this show delivers demographically,” Mr. O’Boyle said.

Last month NBCU closed four branded entertainment deals for “Starting Over,” (TelevisionWeek, July 11), including deals with exercise chain Curves and consumer products giant Reckitt Benckiser.

“Starting Over’s” new focus on couples makes for good television, said Jonathan Murray, executive producer of the series. “It’s important to shake things up, to try different things,” Mr. Murray said.

After the two-week cycle with the four couples, the show’s all-female cast will return, he said.

“We can only really do this at the beginning or end of the season,” Mr. Murray said of the couples casting, noting that the individual female cast members “graduate,” or move off the show, once their individual issues have been addressed, creating openings for new cast members. But he said the change may be an adjustment for “Starting Over’s” audience, which he described as “protective of the show.”

“We’re going to put it on the air and see how [viewers] react,” he said.

Couples counseling is nothing new in daytime. The format has been a talk show staple, most recently becoming the central premise of the successful King World strip “Dr. Phil.” But Mr. Murray said he sees a difference with “Starting Over’s” format.

“There’s an intensity to it,” he said. “I don’t know if you get that when you come on a show for 45 minutes and leave.”