Blair Blasts Barter Biz Glut

The programming v.p. of one of the biggest tv rep firms in the country has ripped into distributors who are carving out more national advertising time in their syndicated shows.

In remarks to be delivered at Blair Television’s annual programming presentation to its tv-station clients at the NATPE convention in New Orleans Jan. 14, Mike Levinton, veepee and director of programming for Blair Television, said the glut of “barter, barter and more barter” is driving the industry “to hell in a handbasket.”

Blair, however, is not a disinterested observer. The company is in the business of selling blocks of its station clients’ time to advertisers. The more barter time syndicators capture for their own purposes, the less will be available for the tv reps to sell.

Shows that are turning over commercial time to national syndicators have taken a quantum leap. And for the first time, distributors of four firstrun strips for fall – Orion TV’s “The Chuck Woolery Show,” Warner Bros. TV’s “Jenny Jones,” MCA TV’s “Up Late With Ron Reagan” and Viacom’s “Realities With David Hartman” – have stopped asking for cash license fees, bartering them instead.

Distributors will hold back up to seven commercial minutes a day in each of these four shows for national advertisers. If all four make it on-air for the 1991-92 season, according to Levinton, 235 30-second spots a week will shift from local to national sale. (The distributors of such current hourlong strips as “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Donahue,” “Geraldo” and “Sally Jessy Raphael” retain only two minutes of national barter per hour because most of the syndicators’ profits flow from cash payments ponied up by the stations that schedule them.)

Levinson adds that, given the current soft advertising marketplace, a deluge of new barter spots would be almost certain to drive down the overall price of commercial time. And, he notes, when a distributor grabs so much of the commercial time, the stations invariably downgrade the show to out-of-the-way time periods. They reserve their best timeslots for the series they have the biggest stake in: The more 30-second spots the stations control, the fatter the revenues if the show succeeds in the ratings.

Poorer time periods for these new all-barter hours almost guarantee depressed ratings for the ’91-’92 season, which in turn means fewer dollars for the distributor trying to sell advertising time. The result is a catch-22, where the use of barter may result in show cancellations and/or cheap-looking productions.

In his summary of the current season-to-date in firstrun syndication, Levinton says, “A major reason most of the new syndicated programs didn’t make it this season is that distributors accepted any number of crazy time periods in barter deals just to get their shows on the air.”

“Of course,” he adds, “with such clearances, these new shows couldn’t deliver a sizable audience and several have already been cancelled.”

Another reason for the massive failure of all of the strips introduced into firstrun syndication last September is that too many of them were “advertiser-friendly and viewer-dull,” he says.

After looking at the pilots for next season’s strips, Levinton says he fears that the distributors haven’t learned their lesson. He sees a tropism syndicators toward “softening the edge of programs in response to pressures from special-interest groups, individual viewers and some advertisers unhappy with controversial topics, especially sexual themes.”

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