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Election Presents Challenge to Fall’s New Syndicated Series

Aug 31, 2008  •  Post A Comment

With the launch of 2008’s upcoming syndicated shows just around the corner, distributors have had little time to enjoy a relatively successful 2007-08 season that saw only two series completely leave the airwaves.

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On the eve of the 2008-09 television syndication season, however, distributors are facing the prospect of a heated election that’s likely to wilt initial ratings for daytime shows.

Once the new first-run launches clear that hurdle, after November, they’ll confront a bevy of shows already circling the waters looking for time periods for 2009.

“There will be a lot of distraction this fall,” said Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. “I think it will be challenging for anybody coming out this year. Flaws will be magnified, and getting people to pay attention to your television shows will take more time than in the past. However, both stations and distributors will have to be in it for a longer-term play in order to find success.”

Election season typically produces not only bolstered ratings for cable and broadcast news coverage, but fewer opportunities to place promotional spots for the new syndicated shows, as commercial time instead goes toward revenue-generating political ads.

“I think every year it gets more challenging for syndicators, and the election this year and the abundant interest that seems to be in place for it has everyone glued to the set,” said John Nogawski, president of CBS Television Distribution. “It’s another good piece of programming we’re up against. In addition, every time Obama or McCain run a spot, that’s one less place we can run our own.”

During the last presidential election, in 2004, only one series, “The Insider,” survived into the present. It may be more daunting still for syndicators to consider that a plethora of high-level talent—including Ryan Seacrest, Jane Pauley and Tony Danza—all entered the syndicated airwaves that year and failed to grow.

While syndication remains among the toughest categories of television in which to create a sustainable run, the election has a history of posing an immediate challenge to finding audiences for new shows.

A number of veterans also are seeking big seasons, with station contracts coming up for “Martha Stewart,” “Rachael Ray,” “Tyra Banks” and several court shows.

There is one potentially saving grace for this year’s freshmen, however.

“One big issue that works in their favor is the economy,” said Chuck Larsen, president of October Moon Television. “History has demonstrated time and time again that people tend to watch more television when they are facing hardships, as they tend to not go out as much. The economy therefore can cause more television viewing for these new shows.”

Despite the challenges, syndicated television shows soldiered on in the most recent season. Only two first-run strips are leaving the airwaves altogether, Sony’s “Judge Lopez” and Twentieth’s “Temptation.” Other series such as “Montel” and “Judge Hatchett” live on only in repeats.

Meanwhile, seven new syndicated first-run strips are poised to take bows nationally in September, which will make for a competitive environment in the race for viewers.

Still, the consolidation of the syndicated TV marketplace has brought to an end the days when syndicators could justify $15 million to $20 million launch campaigns that blanketed the media landscape with promotions for new shows. Viewer erosion has lowered the bar for being considered a success in syndication from a 4.0 household rating a decade ago to a 1.0 rating today.

Along with the falling ratings, many marketing budgets shrank. Some launch campaigns for first-run series in recent years have cost as little as $1 million, according to syndication executives who asked not to be named. That has left syndicators with two choices in program development: Go big and utilize instant brand recognition or go economical to ensure they don’t break the bank if the show fails.

The freshman class of syndicated series appears to have a little of both. This season finds two new game shows, NBC Universal’s daytime version of “Deal or No Deal,” and Debmar-Mercury’s “Trivial Pursuit: America Plays.” The court show genre continues to grow, with the addition of “Family Court With Judge Penny” from Program Partners and “Judge Karen” from Sony (in addition to “Judge Pirro,” which will be a network show on The CW). The talk ranks find the addition of “Bonnie Hunt” from Warner Bros. and “The Doctors” from CBS. Meredith is launching “Better” in limited parts of the country.

“With the amount of options that are out there for the audience, syndication still comes back to producing the best show you can and coming up with the best promotion you can to get your awareness up,” said Mr. Nogawski. “In the end you hope that when it’s time to launch, you’ve got the show that seems to get the most traction.”

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