Aside from the really pressing questions like “Who’s giving the best party?” and “What’s the best restaurant?” NATPE attendees are asking themselves if this year’s offering of new talk and magazine strips will go the same way as last year’s lackluster crop of games and magazines.
“For one thing, there are lower expectations for the new talkshows and, with so much barter, less of a cash risk,” says Tom Bumbera, associate director of programming for the Seltel rep firm.
He and colleague Lanie Shankman also think that tiering won’t be as aggravated a factor as it was last year. Stations are less likely to commit to a show upfront unless it already has decent clearances in other markets. Stations don’t want to be left in the lurch, as some of them were this past season, they explain.
“While the current batch of daytime talkshows are doing just fine, that doesn’t necessarily rule out others catching on,” says Mitchell Praver, programming v.p. at the Katz rep firm. Stations are building double and triple talkshow blocs, and some of these can then be groomed for early fringe, he points out.
Not that playing in various time periods is all that easy. “A good proportion of the slots opening up on stations won’t be the high profile ones,” cautions Jack Fentress, programming veep at Petry, “so getting a show to work for more than one time period, for more than one constituency, could be a tough assignment.”
However, say syndicators, it’s better to have some decent slots than none at all to pursue. Plus, they add, it’s not as intractable a situation as some thought just two months ago.
One windfall comes in the form of an NBC announcement in December. The network has decided to give back an hour of daytime to its affiliates, probably the 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. slot. Also, some CBS affils are expected to make preemptions more blithely, now that the network has cut compensation payments by 20%. Other observers point to a half-hour news adjacency on Fox affils once the fledgling network gets its proposed news service up and running this spring.
Reps say: Play close to the vest
As for preliminary judgments on the quality and usefulness of the new season’s offerings, most rep firms are striking a cautionary note in advice to their stations. “Don’t go out on a limb unless the show is filling a precise need; otherwise, stick with the tried-and-true or take stock of what’s on the shelf” is the oft-repeated suggestion.
“There’s so far no must-haves nor any real buzz about any new firstrun show this season,” adds John von Soosten, director of programming at Katz. He says the impetus to buy something is not as compelling for most stations because so much that’s been on is still working well or at least adequately.
After viewing some of the new shows, reps were divided in their judgments or were withholding their verdicts until they had seen revamps. “Candid Camera,” “Grudge Match” and “Getting Even,” among others, got mixed reviews. The consensus on Viacom’s “Realities”: lotsa work still needed. (The show had gone back to the drawing board in November.)
“The challenge for new talk and magazine shows will be to be as compelling as the established shows in access like ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and ‘Current Affair,'” says Katz’ Praver. “The question is, can they grab the viewer by the lapels without degenerating into sensationalism?”
While access slots are pretty much tied up established top 10 shows, some observers say there are interesting opportunities right now in late fringe. In that time period, newcomers could go for viewers not served by either the older-skewing Johnny Carson or the hip Arsenio Hall, whose November numbers for young males were somewhat off.
Meanwhile, the selling of off-network product continues apace, with several heavyweight sitcoms already wrapping up clearances for ’91 and ’92.
“Married With Children,” which started its push into the market last May (for fall ’91), is now deep into smaller markets. Its pricing has been judged “healthy” by observers, though most are now saying that product which entered the arena subsequently has encountered some cash-strapped stations that have balked at stepping up to the plate.
It is thought that Columbia’s other sitcom, “Designing Women,” will be hitting the market shortly after NATPE as an all-barter show and will be aimed mainly at early fringe (4 p.m. to 5 p.m.) slots. Buena Vista’s “Empty Nest” is also expected to be launched this spring for fall 1992.
These shows will be joining an already deeply cleared contingent of off-network sitcoms, including Turner’s “Wonder Years,” Warners’ “Murphy Brown” and “Full House,” Viacom’s “Roseanne” and Paramount’s “Dear John.”
Off-net off cable
For the moment, too, it looks as though several off-network hours have eschewed cable commitments in favor of broadcast outlets.
Viacom’s “Matlock,” toplining the evergreen Andy Griffith, recently received an important leg up via a 4 p.m. pickup on WCBS New York.
Following it into the market are “In The Heat Of The Night” and “Thirtysomething” from MGM-UA – whose syndication arm has recently been restructured under Tony Lynn. Republic Pictures is bringing to syndication the 56 episodes of “Beauty And The Beast,” currently running on cable. It’s still unclear what Warners will do with “Midnight Caller,” though most observers believe it will follow “China Beach” (the latter has only 60-odd episodes) to cable. Buena Vista also recently won a bid to market the NBC reality-based hit “Unsolved Mysteries” on behalf of producers Cosgrove-Meurer.
With many fewer strips being launched into syndication because of distributors’ reluctance or inability to deficit-finance them indefinitely, much more energy and creativity are going into the less-risky business of launching weekly shows.
“The syndication market is moving toward more niche-ing. It’s safer and it provides a base from which to expand,” says Jim Curtin, v.p. of programming at the HRP rep firm. Curtin says the quality of weekend candidates he’s seen so far is particularly good.
These shows fall into several categories: network retreads like “Baywatch” (jointly financed by LBS and Fremantle-Talbot); MTM’s resurrected ’70s sitcom “WKRP,” with several of the original cast and production team; and Worldvision’s revamped “Tarzan,” including a Jane who lives in her separate tree hut.
In addition, there are action-adventure hours or half-hours, including Stephen Cannell’s upcoming “Street Justice,” which he hopes will emulate the performance of “21 Jump Street” in syndication. Viacom is continuing its ongoing effort to build a two-hour bloc of four action-adventure half-hours; “Lightning Force” now joins “Superboy” and Superforce.”
There are also so-called “high concept” shows such as “Grudge Match,” which is being pitched by Genesis Entertainment as a cross between “American Gladiators” and “People’s Court”; TPE’s “Amazing Love Stories,” recreating both historical and modern-day “real-people” romances; Muller Media’s “Scratch,” a contempo upbeat young-people’s magazine show; Blair Entertainment’s “Stuntmasters,” featuring segments produced by vet French stuntman Remy Julienne; and “The Soap Show,” a gossipy magazine for soap opera fans from Select Media.
Although games is the no-no that few wish to play after last season’s debacle, several syndicators are persevering in the belief that the distaste will disappear by September.
Orbis Communications, which is chasing upgrades for “Joker’s Wild,” will be flanking that strip with a revamp of “The $100,000 Pyramid,” to begin airing in mid-January. The company has already announced a dozen daytime clearances for the latter program. Group W will be bringing its network game “Scrabble” to syndication in the fall, as will Tribune with “The Puzzle Game.”