Major syndicators have sounded the warning bell on the glut of firstrun prime time action hours entering the market, strongly hinting that only the biggest players stand a chance of turning a profit on the expensive genre.

Appearing at an Intl. Radio & Television Society symposium Friday, the heads of some of the biggest syndie operations spoke about the economic viability of the action hour format.

The group concurred that the only sure way to success for the dozen or so male-oriented hours out there is by selling the back-end, or rerun, rights when a station licenses the originals.

But that would take the clout of a Paramount (producer-distributor of the popular “Star Trek” spinoffs and “The Untouchables”) or Warner Bros. (which teamed with a consortium of indie stations to form the “Primetime Network”) — something the other entrants lack.

By locking up the available slots, the two giants may very well be shutting out the smaller independent producers from the lucrative broadcast rerun market.

Cable up

Consequently, Buena Vista Television president Bob Jacquemin suggested, the independents may be forced to take their series to cable.

Although it was left unsaid, basic cablers probably will pony up small license fees (maybe $ 50,000 an episode, at best) that will leave many action hour producers struggling to break even on their investments.

If all or most of the original hours vying for slots make it onto the air this fall, the cumulative effect could be lower overall ratings, which will weaken many of the shows’ back-end values.

Because of the sudden abundance of firstrun action hours, foreign buyers have become much more selective in allocating co-financing dollars.

That factor could force some to produce low-budget hours that wouldn’t stand up against the high-priced product turned out by Paramount.

Doubling up

Paramount syndication president Steve Goldman emphasized that the only way the company can invest approximately $ 1.5 million an episode in a series such as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is through the dual revenue stream; concurrently selling barter time for the originals as well as the rerun rights.

Added Worldvision Enterprises president John Ryan, “Looking at it from a risk-to-reward ratio, (the action hour arena) is a very difficult business.”

Not surprisingly, Ryan, whose company is heavily into distributing movie packages, made a strong pitch for indies to counter the hours with films.

One of the panel participants, Columbia syndication president Barry Thurston, said in an earlier interview that his company is still evaluating the merits of the hour business.

Other than the Paramount and Warner Bros. series, the hour reruns will not be available for at least another year. How well they will sell in the broadcast market, Thurston noted, is anyone’s guess.

Back-end problems

Thurston and the others questioned where stations will run the hours in their back-end lives.

“Will they go back to stripping hours on an indie or an affiliate? Will we see a time when an indie or an affiliate will run an hour at 4 p.m. instead of a talkshow? Will indies be willing to run (more) hours between 6 and 8 p.m.?” Thurston asked.

With the answers unknown, Col has taken a different approach to the hour business by making a series called “Berlin Break” for German TV.

The venture, a co-production between the studio’s network TV wing and Germany’s RTL Plus, represents a “reverse twist,” Thurston said.

“If it does well,” he noted, “we can bring it over here at some point” and sell the reruns as originals.

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