Season Preview: Slim Pickings for First-Run

Sep 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In the world of syndication, 2005-06 is what insiders characterize as an “in-between” season. Unlike in years past, when every major syndicator launched multiple new shows, only three new first-run strips are making fall debuts. Several high-profile possible entries are waiting in the wings for future premieres.

This fall NBC Universal Television Distribution is gearing up for “Martha” with Martha Stewart, Telepictures Productions is debuting “The Tyra Banks Show” and Twentieth Television is going forward with “Judge Alex.”

But 2006-07 is already on the minds of several major syndicators. NBC Universal is developing a talk strip for “Will & Grace” star Megan Mullally for fall 2006, Paramount is planning a series with “The Insider” correspondent Steven Cojocaru, and reality producer Mark Burnett, who is executive producing “Martha,” has said he’s interested in developing for syndication.

The dearth is due in part to the fact that the number of companies in the distribution business has dramatically dwindled in recent years and the companies remaining in the business-most of which are part of large, risk-averse conglomerates-are limiting the shots they take in syndication to very targeted opportunities.

The economic plausibility of launching new first-run strips, which typically cost about $15 million to mount in their first season, in a marketplace of diminishing ratings is questionable.

“For companies that remain committed to the business, every distributor will only put out what they think is a really good idea for the marketplace,” said Sean O’Boyle, senior VP and national sales manager for NBC Universal Television Distribution. “It used to be syndicators would bring things to the marketplace they weren’t fully behind, and wait and see.”

But syndication and station executives said the paucity of new product is more reflective of the cyclical nature of the business than an insurmountable barrier to entry.

There’s no question the business is getting tougher but there is still optimism about the future, said Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television.

“We have a very aggressive slate for next year,” Mr. Cook said. “Everyone is tapping around for the next hit shows as well. It’s skinnier this year, but it ebbs and flows.”

Twentieth isn’t alone. Sony Pictures Television, which is not introducing any new first-run strips this year, is pursuing talk and courtroom projects for next season, said John Weiser, president of distribution for the company.

At least one smaller syndicator is looking to develop a strip for 2006. Litton Entertainment, which is introducing two one-hour weeklies and a half-hour weekly this fall and in the past distributed the talker “Ask Rita,” sees a strip in its future, said Dave Morgan, president and CEO of the company.

“We will have our success there,” Mr. Morgan said of strips. “Whether we get a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ or ‘Jeopardy!’ or ‘Oprah’ is yet to be seen, but we will put ourselves in that position to be that company.”

Mr. Cook said the lack of new fare in the market could bode well for Twentieth’s “Judge Alex,” despite the challenges all new syndicated product for daytime now faces, such as dwindling daytime audiences and escalating production and promotion costs.

“Court is by far the healthiest genre,” he said. “No other genre can claim every show holding or up over last season. And there’s been no new court show in four seasons.”

In a landscape featuring mostly female judges leading the court shows, “Judge Alex’s” host, Alex Ferrer, a youthful 45-year-old former judge and law enforcement officer known to use a bit of humor on the bench, should stand out, Mr. Cook said. Twentieth is hoping Mr. Ferrer’s uniqueness in the market will help him overcome his lack of name recognition, which is less of a problem for either “Martha” or “Tyra.” (A fourth strip also is premiering: Atlas Syndication’s “Eye for an Eye,” which was a weekly series in 2004-05.)

Because of her widely publicized incarceration and her past success on television, Ms. Stewart’s strip is the highest-profile series for the fall, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group.

“It’s going to get huge sampling,” he said. “The real question is, does it have sustainability.”

“Tyra” will serve double duty in markets where it will air on both traditional Fox-owned stations and the former Chris-Craft UPN stations, Mr. Carroll said. In duopoly markets it is expected to air in morning time periods on Fox affiliates and in the afternoon on the UPN sister station, he said.

The looming question for that show, Mr. Carroll said, is: “Can she attract what ‘Ricki Lake’ was able to do the past, which was attract a younger female audience?”