Sudden Scramble for Programming

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

It’s back to the future for syndication.

The sudden open time slots brought on by Warner Bros. Television and CBS Corp.’s deal to create The CW has agents, producers and syndicators buzzing about the potential return of prime-time talk, the weekly action hour and syndicated movie packages.

Just hours after The CW was announced last Tuesday, agents and producers at the National Association of Television Program Executives annual convention in Las Vegas were already setting up meetings to discuss new programming they hoped to sell to stations that will lose their UPN or WB schedules.

Consensus is that existing shows and product already in the distribution pipeline will do the trick for now, but newly independent stations are expected to all go their own way, picking various kinds of programming to fill holes as opposed to following the same model, one major syndication executive said.

“Each station will program according to their specific needs,” the executive said.

Quickly turning around a new strip would be a stretch, Marc Schacher, Tribune’s VP of programming and development, told TelevisionWeek on Tuesday. “To pick a project, get it sold and get a viable production up and running would be a challenge,” he said. But shows already in development could have a chance, Mr. Schacher added.

Though most of the Tribune stations will carry The CW, Mr. Schacher’s stations in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Seattle are all going indie for the fall.

Tribune is evaluating what it has on hand before buying any additional programming, he said. For the time being, Tribune has rights to double-run its upcoming collaboration with Sony Pictures Television, the talk/relationship strip “The Greg Behrendt Show.” Mr. Schacher said he’s considering putting one of the runs in prime time on those stations.

Local stations that don’t know whether they will be independent or a new affiliate of The CW have to hedge their bets on buying content, said Chris Mossman, VP of sales and marketing for Gray Television’s UPN affiliate WCTV-TV in Tallahassee, Fla. If his station becomes a CW affiliate, Mr. Mossman will need to buy less syndicated fare than he does now, since The CW will run 13 hours in prime time, plus a two-hour weekday block and kids weekend programming, as opposed to UPN’s 10 hours of prime time. But if another station in his market goes with The CW, he will have to fill those 10 hours of former UPN product with other programming come fall.

“The people I’m meeting today and tomorrow and Thursday didn’t know this was coming up, so obviously there will be a lot of contingencies,” Mr. Mossman said from the floor of the convention last Tuesday.

More Value in Local Sports

Despite the hesitancy, stations fearful of being underprogrammed took a hard look at prime-time-friendly product, including Twentieth Television’s “Desire” telenovela strip, which was the topic of considerable convention buzz. Stations were also buying product from smaller syndicators that in years past might have been overlooked. That includes Program Partners, which is distributing Crime Watch, a two-hour block of Canadian prime-time procedural dramas.

“We’ve had a number of stations come in that we didn’t have appointments with,” Program Partners’ Ritch Colbert said from his company’s hotel suite last Tuesday. “We did a couple of deals today with a couple of those stations. They happen to be WB affiliates who were facing the loss of their network.”

One syndicator argued local sports broadcast rights are more valuable now, while other NATPE attendees suggested the weekly action-hour genre could make a comeback.

Before the next generation of “Hercules” hits the air, however, some classic syndication paradigms still must be addressed, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV Group.

“It really depends on the viability of the top markets,” Mr. Carroll said, noting that the biggest question for syndicators is the clearances in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Stations’ interest in film packages may also be overly exuberant, he said, since the cable networks’ need for movies to fill their schedules may price them out of the local broadcast market.

One rumor hitting the convention floor Tuesday was that syndicators with off-network programming for fall 2007 might move up their schedules and make content available starting in 2006, with Debmar-Mercury’s “The Dead Zone” being touted as a prime candidate.

That was news to Debmar-Mercury co-President Mort Marcus, who said last Tuesday he had no idea how the rumor got started.

“We fully intend to distribute in fall 2007,” Mr. Marcus said.

Melissa Grego and Chuck Ross contributed to this report.