NATPE 2006: Bumper Crop of First-Run Product

Jan 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

What a difference a year makes.

Last season, just three new first-run syndicated strips made it to air: Warner Bros.’ “The Tyra Banks Show,” NBC Universal’s “Martha” and Twentieth’s “Judge Alex.” But this year, bucking the trend of the past few seasons, the number of new strips is up.

The mood at the National Association of Television Program Executives convention last January reflected that dearth of product.

After false starts on a Sony Pictures Television project involving Howard Stern’s radio sidekick Robin Quivers and a proposed syndicated series with financial guru Suze Orman from Twentieth Television, executives were filled with uncertainty about the state of debuting first-run strips from the major distributors.

This year, at least nine first-run strips are being sold or have already been cleared nationally.

Among the distributors heading to NATPE with new shows for this fall are 2005 sideliners King World Productions and Sony.

King World is distributing “Rachael Ray,” while Sony has gone from no projects to two, thanks to its court strip with Judge Maria Lopez and talk show with author and comedian Greg Behrendt.

For Sony, coming out with multiple projects after a year off is no accident, said John Weiser, president of distribution for the company.

“We weren’t developing in a vacuum,” Mr. Weiser said, explaining that Sony’s deal made last year with the Tribune-owned stations to develop a new strip for fall 2006 made it much more likely that Sony would get a show on the air. That show became Mr. Behrendt’s new strip. Unlike other major distributors, Sony does not own a station group to sell to. “We really believe collective development is Sony’s way to the future,” he said.

It also meant not sitting back and waiting for a merely adequate show to develop on its own, he said.

“Mediocre doesn’t fly anymore,” Mr. Weiser said. “You’ve got to step up. We got aggressive.”

Other factors have come into play as well, said Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television. With an increasing amount of original choices from cable, stations couldn’t afford not to introduce something fresh. That’s in part why Twentieth is launching “Desire,” a wheel of English-language telenovelas.

“The station community was clamoring for something new that would set them apart from their competitors,” Mr. Cook said.

And the renewed interest in courtroom projects is a product of the format’s own strengths, said Joanne Burns, Twentieth’s executive VP of marketing, research and new media.

“Every station guy has to say what genre’s working, and last year court was the healthiest genre,” Ms. Burns said. “The average [national household] rating is a 3-plus.”

Rolling out a strip also means making sure your product will be as ready for the market and as attractive as possible, said Roger King, CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World.

“Last year stations were clamoring because they didn’t like what they had to buy,” Mr. King said. “They were begging. We don’t come out with a show before its time.”