Syndies Bet Their Life On Celebs & Strip Tease

The rule of thumb for the ’92 syndie season seems to be: If you can’t line up a tantalizing personality to front your show, go full-tilt for titillation. Some syndicators will try for both.

Most high-profile name in the offing is Bill Cosby, who has helped open doors and pocketbooks at stations across the country for a remake of “You Bet Your Life,” the ’50s game show once emceed by Groucho Marx, syndicated by Cosby himself in partnership with Carsey-Werner.

“Hollywood types have noticed that Oprah and Donahue have made millions through syndication. It wouldn’t surprise me to see other top names eschew the network route and try for gold in syndication,” quips Jim Curtin, VP of programming for the H.R.P. rep firm. “This could be the year of the big Q score.”

Also expect to see fiercer jousting among firm-go firstrun projects than ever before at the National Assn. of Television Program Executives confab this January.

Word on the street is that there’ll be fewer projects greenlighted by fewer players at NATPE (Jan. 20-24), and at a later date than ever. And once shows are out of the box, syndicators say they can afford fewer and fewer flops.

Syndicators are up against an unwavering recession and multiple-year locks on time periods by a handful of syndicators.

What they have going for them is so-so performances from this fall’s crop of hopefuls – hence the likelihood of more downgrades and cancellations – and the fact that the networks are loosening their grip on daytime and latenight dayparts.

As they determine which project to push into the fray, syndicators can’t help but notice that “Donahue” is on a roll with increasingly spicy subjects and that “Studs” and “Married… With Children” are enticing viewers more rapidly than they are repelling advertisers.

They also can see that the softer talk show approach as practiced by Jenny Jones and Chuck Woolery isn’t cutting it. And that throwing $40 million worth of marketing and promotional money at a show (as King World did for “Candid Camera”) won’t necessarily make a hit.

Of those projects lined up for the confab floor in New Orleans, several are depending on top-drawer personalities to drive sales.

“You Bet Your Life,” which the pilots suggest depends more on Cosby’s shtick and charisma than on game show elements, will clear some 50% of the country in access before delegates convene at NATPE.

Whoopi Goldberg is being touted as a high-recognition personality who can draw the fickle latenight crowd.

MCA is banking on automatic viewer interest in Kitty Kelley, the controversial celebrity biographer. Multimedia is offering Rush Limbaugh, a sharp-tongued politicial satirist with a national radio following.

Burt Reynolds, who recently hosted several CBS talk specials, is also being wooed by syndicators to front any number of different projects.

One problem with the celeb strategy could be whether busy personalities will have the time to dedicate themselves to the syndication routine. For example, Goldberg is said to be available for a limited number of weeks to tape all 40 weeks of shows – leaving little chance for a promotion tour or retooling.

(Other 1992 hopefuls for personality-driven vehicles include coffee-klatch confidante Cristina Ferrare, former naval intelligence officer Montel Williams, former Cincinnati mayor and local news anchor Jerry Springer and former network news comer Jane Wallace – all of whom have been testing on stations. Kathleen Sullivan, Bree Walker and Ann Jillian are also possible candidates.)

Two types of games also will be clamoring for attention.

More than a dozen projects hoping to pair off with or upstage Warner Bros, long-running “Love Connection” or Fox’s sassy rookie “Studs,” are in development in the so-called relationship or love genre.

Group W’s “That’s Amore,” from an Italian format, and “How’s Your Love Life?” the first project okayed by the Viacom/Katz programming consortium, already have begun chalking up clearances.

Other titles which may enter the fray are “Infatuation” from Genesis Entertainment, “Kiss & Tell” from Warners, “Love At First Sight” from Paramount, “Personals” from Stephen J. Cannell, “Night Moves” from Kushner-Locke and “Intimate Relations” from Twentieth TV.

Although most syndicators soured on classic game show development after last year’s firstrun debacle, several have now stuck their necks out with such projects. The new twist here is ‘gamedies,’ hybrids combining comedy and game elements. Sources say a handful of such shows may join Cosby’s vehicle at NATPE.

“Ruckus,” a Merv Griffin production for Columbia Pictures TV, has been testing in access to lackluster numbers on WNBC New York. It has been pitched in other markets but so far no deals have been announced.

Buena Vista TV has shot a pilot for a celebrity-driven comedy stunt show, “Class Clowns,” from Dick Clark Prods.

King World is rumored to be in negotiations for rights to remake “Hollywood Squares,” with Burt Reynolds hosting, but a spokesperson would not comment.

Twentieth Television is developing a trivial pursuit game show called “Million Dollar Memory Test” and T.P.E. has shot a pilot for “Come as You Are,” a takeoff on treasure hunt contests.

Several program rep and syndication sources say they believe that two or three surprise entries will join the first-run race on the eve of NATPE.

Take Worldvision – which plans to zig in the belief that most others are planning to zag.

“We’ve looked at many relationship game pitches but so many others did the same thing. Unless one was a standout, it didn’t seem to make sense to go ahead. We’ve decided to jump in another direction and will bring a different kind of strip to market,” says Don Micallef, VP of development, Worldvision. But he would not give specifics.

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