Special Report Road to NATPE First-Run Programming: The Calm Before the Vegas Storm

Jan 1, 2007  •  Post A Comment

A high number of renewals and few available slots have made for a slow pre-NATPE season. But things should pick up on the market floor.

A quiet off-season for syndicators could make for an interesting week at the National Association of Television Program Executives conference as companies face more question marks this year than answers.

For first-run programming, this season has so far provided few household names and even fewer big deals locked in to debut on stations for the fall 2007 season. Instead of Vivica Fox, Patricia Heaton and Mark Burnett, who had projects in development, stations are turning to formats they know will provide a steady pull with audiences to fill the few remaining holes in their schedules.

“Clearly, the market now seems different than in previous years when syndicators had big names and early acquisitions,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group. “Normally we go into the start of the [previous] season… knowing one or two shows that are going to be part of the landscape the following year.”

One key ingredient to the slow pacing of new sales this time has been an unusually high number of renewals. Series that premiered a year ago such as “Martha Stewart,” “Tyra Banks” and “Judge Alex” have all now renewed their deals with stations. This year’s crop of freshmen has seen no cancellations thus far, and in fact, “Rachael Ray” and “Judge Maria Lopez” are both confirmed to return to the fold for season two. Others whose fates have not been officially decided include “The Megan Mullally Show,” “Dr. Keith Ablow,” “The Greg Behrendt Show” and “Cristina’s Court.”

With some likely but no confirmed openings in station timeslots, many distributors are either taking a wait-and-see approach to the market or sitting it out altogether until the 2008 season. At this point only two strips are on the clock for 2007 launches: Twentieth Television’s “Morning Show With Mike and Juliet,” set to air this month, and Sony Pictures Television’s “Judge David Young.” Both shows have nabbed deals with the Fox station group. Should NBC move forward with plans to add a fourth hour to “Today,” another hour of time could disappear as well.

Several Game Shows

Others very much in the picture include two from Warner Bros., a celebrity jury court show and a newsmagazine version of TMZ.com; “Deal or No Deal” from NBC Universal; and a Twentieth game show, likely either “Catchphrase” or “Connections” from Granada or “Temptations” from Fremantle. Paramount and Sony have also been exploring game shows. However, a number of projects that were originally developed for the 2007 season now appear dead, on hold for 2008 or even looking toward a cable or network run.

“With a lot of time periods already filled, stations are now looking to fill slots that have been volatile over the past five years, with some of these periods airing as many as five shows in those time periods,” Mr. Carroll said. “Because of this, syndicators are looking at the viability of launching a show in one of those time periods, and stations are searching for a product that fits its lineup.”

The first series out of the gate will be Twentieth Television’s morning strip with co-hosts Mike Jerrick and Juliet Huddy of Fox News Channel’s “DaySide.” The show will be live from 9 to 10 a.m. in most markets, and will feature entertainment and general-interest programming that interacts with a live audience. The series will debut Jan. 22 on the Fox owned-and-operated stations, with other markets coming on board as they sign on.

“The chemistry between Mike and Juliet is phenomenal,” said Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television. “TV stations have been trying to figure out how to expand their news and this show gives them a nice platform to do that. So far our initial introduction of this show to the station community has been nothing but positive, especially as it taps into what women want in a series-a fun and fast format that provides news and information.”

The series’ Times Square location in New York should prevent some of the obstacles Twentieth had with its previous morning show “Good Day Live,” which was shot in Los Angeles but due to time differences wasn’t able to run on the East Coast until early afternoon.

“This is a time period-specific show, and perfectly fills the void many stations have at 9 a.m.,” Mr. Cook said. “On top of that, if there were breaking stories at that time, their experience at Fox News, as well as the backing of the largest news-gathering operation in the world, qualifies them to take the ball and run with it.”

Sony’s New Court Show

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Television is expanding upon one genre it has focused on in recent years, court shows. The distributor announced in December that its upcoming series “Judge David Young” had cleared most of the country, including the Fox stations.

“Stations want programs that work, whether it’s from game, court or anything else,” said John Weiser, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Television. “Right now, court is the only genre that’s up and it’s something stations said they wanted, so we developed programming to fit those needs.”

The series will feature Judge Young presiding over the courtroom docket. Still a sitting judge, he earned a reputation nationwide for providing creative and provocative sentences during his tenure, including dismissing disorderly conduct charges against an opera singer after she agreed to sing in court and sentencing an 87-year-old woman to 30 years in jail for murder because she showed no remorse.

“There has been a tremendous reception to David Young in the marketplace, where he will be double-run in every station he’s on,” Mr. Weiser said. “Clearly, we are heavily invested in the court genre right now, with three shows in the genre plus our other series, but that means there will be a lot of unfinished business at NATPE for us to attend to.”

Should Warner Bros. opt to move forward with its own court show featuring a celebrity jury, the genre will grow to 11 series provided Twentieth’s “Cristina’s Court” comes back for a second go-round. Although ratings for debuting court series have diminished as the genre becomes saturated and key timeslots fill up, stations continue to view court programming as a stable buy.

“Court blocks are part of both traditional and nontraditional affiliate lineups, and adding new series makes it easy for a station to add to its court show programming block,” Mr. Carroll said. “Companies like Warner Bros. and Sony have an expertise in that area and it makes it easier for stations to buy from them as a result.”

For stations, general managers are getting nervous at the silence in the marketplace. Consolidation has left many of them with a diminished voice in what will air on their stations, resulting in uncertainty about their upcoming schedules. One GM noted, “We’re at the point where we might as well plan to keep what we have.”

Mr. Carroll echoed that sentiment.

“These days there is a thought among stations that `the devil you know’ is better than taking a chance on yet another show disrupting a lineup,” he said. “Of course all it takes is one big deal to turn that around.”