Syndication Sells for the Sabbath

Mar 19, 2007  •  Post A Comment

If the new shows in weekend syndication this fall seem familiar, there’s a reason.

What was once a launching ground of first-run series such as “Baywatch,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” is now fertile ground where well-established programs can cultivate fresh revenue. Studios coping with a tepid market now see opportunity in stations’ weekend programming holes to draw new audiences to their shows.

NBC Universal Television Studios is set to announce that Fox stations in major markets have picked up “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” for weekend play. This fall will bring the launch of “UFC Wired,” featuring content from the red-hot Ultimate Fighting Championship league, Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show,” “The Dead Zone” from Debmar-Mercury and a weekend version of Internet sensation TMZ.com.

A strong freshman year for some of these weekend series could bring a distributor as much as $20 million in sales, multiple executives from TV stations and syndication companies said. “One of the easiest decisions a station can make is to take a marquee program in syndication that’s been successful in both the network and cable weekday play,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at Katz Television. “There is not a lot of risk involved, and it doesn’t involve a lot of promotion. The audience already knows what the series is about.”

NBC Universal executives said they have sold the popular NBC series in 95 percent of the country including Fox-owned stations in the nation’s top three markets.

“‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'” continues to be a dominant program for NBC in prime time in its eighth season and local broadcasters are excited about the opportunity to add it to their weekend lineups starting this fall,” said Sean O’Boyle, senior VP and general sales manager, NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution.

Among the markets set to air the hour-long drama this fall will be Fox-owned stations WWOR-TV, New York, KCOP-TV, Los Angeles and WPWR-TV, Chicago; Tribune’s WPHL-TV, Philadelphia; Hearst’s WCVB-TV, Boston, and WJLA-TV, Washington, D.C.

Sales of the series are expected to bolster ratings for stations’ weekend lineups, where repurposed content accounts for eight of the 10 top-rated weekly series and fellow procedural drama “CSI: Miami” currently ranks at the top with a 4.7 average rating this season.

Perhaps the biggest weekend surprise of the syndicated fall season has been the success of the repurposed “American Idol Rewind” which has averaged a 2.6 rating this season to lead all unscripted weeklies. This marks a stark contrast to the 1990s, when first-run hours dominated the charts. Those shows fell from grace once cheaper, prebranded fare such as “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” came to market.

“We’ve seen some of the highest ratings in almost a decade on weekends thanks to the inclusion of series such as ‘CSI: Miami,’ and I think the addition of ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ will only solidify that,” said Chuck Larsen, president of distributor and consulting agency October Moon Television. “These branded successful network hours will continue to get the best time periods as a result.”

“Law & Order: SVU” is currently in its eighth season on NBC and now ranks as the network’s top scripted program with an 8.5 Nielsen household rating. Repeats of the series currently air on the USA Network.

Multiple sources in the syndication industry say that top-rated hour-long shows are currently fetching nearly $2 million per episode from cable outlets, which are now considered the primary market for off-net hours. In the secondary market of weekend syndication, the money continues to flow, with top-rated series earning another $10 million to $20 million gross per year for distributors.

“Chappelle’s Show” and “UFC Wired” are two other series that analysts say may break through the crowd this fall. “Chappelle’s Show” is currently cleared in 60 percent of the country, including the nation’s top three markets, for distributor MGM.

“One series that has a lot of potential is ‘Chappelle,'” Mr. Carroll said. “That’s a show that’s basically been underexposed in that it has only been on Comedy Central … There has been a lot of buzz but not everyone has seen the show. It should get some traction once it debuts in syndication.”

MGM will also debut its sci-fi-themed carousel of programs in “MGM Presents,” which is composed of four off-cable series including “Dead Like Me” and “Jeremiah,” each set to run for 13 weeks straight before the next series begins. The sci-fi programs are now thought to have cleared in 58 percent of the country.

Trifecta’s “UFC Wired” has cleared most of the Fox-owned station group and will be among the few first-run offerings this fall. The distributor is betting that the popular sports brand — which has scored huge pay-per-view buys as well as top ratings on SpikeTV — will once again bring coveted male viewers back to stations on weekends.