‘Baywatch’ Back in Syndie Gambit

Oct 9, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The lifeguards who charmed the world are back.

South Carolina-based distributor Litton Syndication is taking FremantleMedia North America’s 1990s weekly syndicated beach drama “Baywatch” back into syndication. This time the show is being sold as a Monday-through-Friday strip, starting in fall 2007.

“Pam Anderson in all her glory, in her bathing suit, will be on your air soon,” said Dave Morgan, who founded Litton 17 years ago.

The 109-episode “Baywatch,” which in its heyday was the most popular television show on the planet, is being offered on an all-barter basis for three years.

“Many stations are looking at early fringe,” Mr. Morgan said, noting that a double run in late fringe is also likely.

The return of “Baywatch” to the syndication marketplace is one example of how companies like Litton-that don’t have the leverage of a major corporate parent or a sister station group-can still seek profits despite the decade of consolidation that has transpired since the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed the old Financial-Syndication rules.

Litton is not a mom-and-pop operation, with its first-run programming (“The Tom Joyner Show,” “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures”), news content supply business and commercial production facilities, plus additional offices in Los Angeles and New York. The privately held company declined to give a figure of its worth, but yearly billing is estimated at $40 to $60 million.

Compared to the billion-dollar heft of a CBS Paramount or an NBC Universal, Litton is a much smaller entity.

Fremantle’s decision to go with Litton as a syndicator as opposed to one of the big conglomerates has potential advantages, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for the Katz Television Group.

“The question is, do you want to be the No. 1 priority for a boutique syndicator or on the list of options with a larger syndicator,” Mr. Carroll said. “You then have to weigh the pluses and minuses in that context.”

Despite Litton’s successes and its “Baywatch” coup, changes brought on by the 1996 Telecom Act, which allowed networks to own their own programming, made it harder for independent syndicators to stay unaligned, said Program Partners principal Ritch Colbert.

“In a practical matter, the big guys got substantially busy and the smaller guys got smaller,” he said. “Often you have a station sitting around waiting for CBS Paramount or Warner Bros. to come in and tell them what to do.”

Hearty Appetite

Even with the concentration of resources among a few large players, openings have been created for companies like his, Mr. Colbert said.

“The appetite for diversity of choice is high,” he said. “Stations are very responsive and welcoming to a viable independent with high-quality alternative product. From that point of view it’s been very easy in terms of access, but nevertheless very competitive. We’re competing against very well-resourced, large organizations.”

In addition to competition from big suppliers, regulatory changes that allow for duopolies in the top three markets “were horrible, horrible decisions” for the independent distributors, said Rick Feldman, president and CEO of the National Association of Television Program Executives.

Companies owning more than one station in a major market “doesn’t mean to say it can’t be done,” Mr. Feldman said of smaller companies doing business. But “allowing for duopolies in those markets and the overall consolidation in the market makes for a less vigorous marketplace, and there’s no getting around that.”

Debmar-Mercury’s foray into the first-run sitcom business is “very exciting,” Mr. Feldman said, as is the prospect of smaller companies talking directly to station groups about producing more cost-effective programming to fit individual needs and the growth of digital platforms.

There is likely to be a new business created online for smaller syndicators, “but it is too early to know where to place your bet,” Mr. Feldman said, noting that life will continue to be much more difficult for the independents than it was a decade ago.

“It’s going to be a very, very long time before any other currency takes the place of what the market used to be,” he said.