Uncertainty Grips Strips

Feb 20, 2006  •  Post A Comment

For first-run syndicated strips that are not certain to return for another season, the launch of new broadcast network The CW and the dissolution of UPN and The WB have only added to the confusion.

For example, two strips that have not been given a firm go for fall 2006, NBC Universal’s “Starting Over” and Buena Vista’s sophomore “The Tony Danza Show,” already faced challenges to getting another season on the air.

“Starting Over,” now in its third season, has been an NBC Universal experiment in bringing to syndication reality elements that are more common on cable, with the hopes of drawing a younger audience. The show, which is produced by “The Real World” producers Bunim-Murray Productions, was on the bubble last year before it ultimately got the green light for the current season.

“Danza,” which faced several tough overnight clearances in major markets its first season, will be bumped from the ABC owned-and-operated stations in New York and Philadelphia by King World’s “Rachael Ray” for next fall. Rumors have swirled in New York gossip columns that cancellation is imminent.

With stations in at least 50 markets facing the prospect of becoming independents in the fall once UPN and The WB stop running network programming, hours of broadcast time will need to be filled with something else. That something else could include shows such as “Starting Over” or “Danza” or other programs not yet considered firm goes for fall.

In an environment in which stations may be hungry for programming, gambling on the bubble shows-which by definition means they may not be back for a new season later this year-could look like feasible options for stations. That is, once stations know whether they will need more-or less-programming next season.

“The problem is we won’t know the answer to how it’s going to impact stations in individual markets until we find out is it The WB affiliate becoming a CW or a UPN affiliate becoming a CW,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group.

With 13 hours of prime time being offered to CW affiliates, current UPN stations, which run 10 hours of prime time, will need to make room on their schedules to become part of the new network and will require less syndicated product. If many former WB affiliates end up going independent, syndication needs are likely to increase.

But if Fox provides some sort of programming to stations as part of its yet-to-be announced plans for its own UPN affiliates, that too could impact what stations buy.

“Until we get a better handle on that, everything is going to be in a state of suspended animation,” Mr. Carroll added.

Even the best-case scheduling scenario may not keep at-risk syndie fare on the air, said Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry TV.

“A prime-time clearance on a former UPN station is probably not enough to keep these shows alive,” Ms. Losak said. “I don’t know for sure. All those things should be looked at, but it’s somewhat unlikely.”

Syndie Basics Challenged

Despite any new scenarios for launching and keeping programming on the air that present themselves thanks to the launch of The CW, the basics of syndication seem to be in place. Those basics dictate a first-run strip has to have a New York clearance, and a show in its third or fourth season is not going to get picked up if it is facing significant downgrades in major markets. But at a time when even some of the most basic assumptions about the feasibility of the TV business are changing rapidly, it’s difficult to know what will drive a syndicator to pick up or cancel a show, Mr. Carroll said.

“That’s kind of Syndication 101, but I never say never these days,” he said, noting that talk of The WB and UPN going away would have been rejected as improbable right before CBS Corp. and Time Warner announced the launch of The CW. “I have learned anything is possible. The only thing that makes the difference is the economics,” Mr. Carroll added. “If the economics makes sense people will pursue it.”

Buena Vista declined comment and refused to give out “Danza’s” clearance numbers for next fall, but insiders said the company is still trying to get the show sold in markets where it will be displaced.

Like Buena Vista, NBC Universal declined to provide the Emmy-winning “Starting Over’s” clearance for next fall, but a spokesman said the company was “awaiting more data” before making a decision about the show.

“Bunim-Murray is a terrific partner,” the spokesman said. “They really understand the daytime audience.”

Now in its third season, “Starting Over” had a 1.1 national household rating for the current season through Feb. 2, according to Nielsen Media Research, even with its year-ago average from 2004-05. “Danza” has a 1.2 household rating for the season, an 8 percent decline from its year-ago average.