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First-Run Success Building on Brands

Jan 20, 2008  •  Post A Comment

When it comes to first-run syndication at the National Association of Television Program Executives convention this year, it’s all about the brand. Distributors are scouring industries looking for recognizable names that bring audiences to the television, ad dollars to the table and a workable financial formula to their budgets.
“The new criterion for us is that it has to be a brand,” said Bob Cook, president-chief operating officer of Twentieth Television, which sources said has been working extensively to build shows with the likes of Yahoo, eBay, Steve Harvey, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and Donald Trump for series to launch in 2008 and 2009.
“All of the projects we are focusing on have marketing extensions,” he added, “and when you have ratings diminishing in the daypart, that can give you a huge leg up by having the additional exposure and promotion.”
Indeed, a survey of new series being sold to stations for next season includes a diverse mixture this year of genres, many of which bring recognizable names and formats in tandem with the show, from both studios as well as independent distributors. Other companies, meanwhile, are turning instead to formats that have proved financially successful in recent years.
Officially on deck for the 2008 syndication season are, in the game show category, “Deal or No Deal,” the prime-time hit from NBC Universal, and “Trivial Pursuit: America Plays” from Debmar-Mercury; “Dr. Phil” spinoff “The Doctors” from CBS; and actress-comedian Bonnie Hunt from Telepictures joining the talk show ranks. In addition, Twentieth Television is expected to announce a deal with comic-actor-radio host Steve Harvey some time before NATPE begins this week.
Following a more traditional model will be Sony Pictures Television and Program Partners, who expand their portfolios with “Judge Karen Mills” and “Family Court,” respectively, among court shows.
“There are really two ways to go for syndicators,” said Mr. Cook. “You can keep an eye on program genres that can be done on a budget, such as court and game, and you can find a way to extend a brand such as ‘Deal’ or ‘Trivial Pursuit.’ Ideally you can find a way to do both.”
“Deal or No Deal” has made headlines since last year’s NATPE for NBC Universal and grabbed headlines nationally by signing prime-time host Howie Mandel for the daytime version. The series was quickly sold to the NBC station group, among others, and will be granted the prestigious access timeslot in some markets.
“Stations are looking for something that will work in syndication, and when you have an established brand such as ‘Deal or No Deal,’ with the same host, set, executive producer and the same elements that make the show incredibly good and popular in prime time, it’s a good thing,” said Linda Finnell, senior VP of programming at NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution. “From an audience point of view, you can’t get any better than that. It’s an established brand that’s already working on television and gives stations something they can promote.”
Other distributors, such as Sony and Program Partners, are taking a calculated approach by developing for a profitable genre that continues to perform well in the ratings, the court show, and making a new brand out of the series.
“‘Family Court’ is doing very well and has been well received throughout the markets,” said Josh Raphaelson, co-founder of Program Partners. “I think court is a format that doesn’t have to be reinvented, it’s familiar to all the broadcasters. But that said, we can improve on it, and I feel we have an outstanding central character who is a talent poised to break out.”
Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Television’s upcoming court series “Judge Karen Mills” has already cleared 72% of the country and 13 of the top 15 stations, according to sources. A Sony Pictures Television representative declined to comment for this story.
With series in the game, court and talk categories as well as high-profile shows from both independent and studio distributors, the slate of new first-run programming at NATPE is poised to be the most diverse in years.
Meanwhile, last year’s slate, which also featured a slew of pre-branded series including “TMZ,” “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords” and “Steve Wilkos,” saw few outright bombs. It could, in fact, score the best renewal ratio for new shows in years, despite none of the shows breaking the 2.0 barrier (although “TMZ” comes close).
“This has been a solid year for syndication, with the majority of programs coming back. Part of the reason for that was that development was targeted to branding opportunities and took advantage of available market situations and by extending brands that already existed,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television. “Syndicators looked at what was successful this year, and that’s why we’re seeing known commodities such as ‘Deal’ and the ‘Dr. Phil’ spinoff prepare for next season.”

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