Big bucks, No Yucks At Testy TV Confab

“The syndication business is alive and well,” said Barry Thurston, president of Columbia/TriStar TV Distribution, at a panel of major studio execs on the last day of the NATPE convention here last week.

That sounded like an obvious comment, but in 1995 it’s anything but. The strong economy has brought advertisers flocking back to television over the past year, and the syndication business is by most accounts swimming in big bucks.

But the heavy failure rate of firstrun strips this season, and the absence of a breakout concept among the pilots that syndicators are pitching, put something of a damper on the rain-soaked gathering of the National Assn. of Television Program Executives.

And on a larger scale, seismic changes in the industry are causing more upheaval in TV syndication than at any other time in recent memory.

Consider the following:

* Walt Disney Television & Telecommunications chairman Rich Frank raised eyebrows after he said at a panel session that he was concerned about the growth of local marketing agreements and the impact they’re having on syndicators.

After more than a dozen station operators complained to Disney about the remarks, Frank said the studio was not planning to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s review of LMAs, which allow one broadcaster to program two stations in a market.

* Some of the new partnerships between station groups are having trouble. CBS and Group W may be prepared to buy stations jointly, but whether they can get together on programming remains to be seen. The CBS-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago refused to carry “Day & Date,” the CBS-Group W venture’s new newsmag, in the 4 p.m. time period, which has been committed to syndicated fare. Peace was made in L.A. and New York, with CBS and Group W agreeing to broadcast five live feeds instead of just one. But the battle will certainly have an effect on how this and other partnerships work.

* New World, whose partnership with Fox led to the biggest affiliate shakeup in the history of the industry, is creating even more ripples by looking to partner with other networks. It’s currently talking to NBC and others about joint programming arrangements, along the lines of the one created with Fox.

* On the network-studio front, there is concern that new networks run by Paramount and Warner Bros. will try to use the Big Three webs and Fox as farm teams for their services.

While Warner Bros. execs have indicated that strategy is unlikely, Paramount caused a stir when Frank Biondi, CEO of Paramount parent Viacom Inc., said the studio was keeping its options open on whether to take “Melrose Place” to UPN when its deal with Fox expires. Network execs said they will have to rewrite their contracts to protect themselves against such moves.

* Station group owners who are not fortunate enough to have tied their future to the fate of a network are busy forming their own programming divisions. Group owners including Belo, LIN and Kelly are looking to get heavily into programming and distribution.

That, too, could lead to strains as they try to clear shows on their own stations in time periods that either belong to networks or have been earmarked for syndicators.

Clearances for cash

* Relations between the Big Three networks and their affils may not be as smooth as they currently appear. Yes, networks are paying anywhere from $10 million to $15 million in compensation to major market stations, but in return, the networks want clearances for their cash. While the whipcracking by the Big Three is working now, in a few years things could change.

* Finally, a move by UPN to compile its double runs and cume them to get higher ratings will likely put a rift between networks and their affiliates, networks and producers, producers and syndicators – and all against A.C. Nielsen. (See story, page 35.)

From a logistical standpoint, TV syndicators were lugging around elaborate scorecards to try to keep up with the 60 or so TV stations that have switched affiliations in the last few months or are about to.

“The CBS station that suddenly finds itself a Fox affiliate has to go out and buy youth-appeal shows because that’s the Fox demo,” says Lou Dennig, VP and director of programming for Blair Television, the TV station rep firm. “Conversely, the Fox affiliate that winds up with CBS has to start buying older skewing shows that are compatible with news.”

Talkshow fever

All of those issues were swirling around the convention floor of the Sands Expo here. But on a more nitty-gritty level, 10 talkshows look as though they’ll harvest enough clearances to get on the air in 1995 – “but it’s hard to tell them apart,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at Katz Communications. “Stations are buying these shows, but with very little enthusiasm.”

Phil Oldham, exec VP of Genesis Entertainment, says, “The lack of excitement extends to all categories – talkshows, reality shows and hour-long action-adventure series. There’s no breakout program this year.”

The convention itself seemed to be taking its cue from the lackadaisical mood of station buyers – there were fewer bikini-clad pitch-women roaming the convention floor than usual, and only a couple of people costumed in oversize animal outfits clogged the aisles. The free food, even in the giant booths occupied by the movie companies, was just a pale imitation of the lavish spreads of earlier years.

The businesslike atmosphere on the floor and the chilly Las Vegas weather focused station execs’ minds on all of the replacement five-a-weekers they’re going to need for the canceled “Suzanne Somers” and “The Price Is Right” strips – plus eight other freshman strips that station rep firms predict will not survive beyond the 1994-95 season.

But the likely disappearance of those strips is not the only reason that 10 new ones will be up and running in September. Oldham says independent stations and Fox affiliates have gravitated to firstrun talkshows in unprecedented numbers over the last three years, creating a whole new marketplace for the genre.

The talkshows that the experts say will be slugging it out during the 1995-96 season are: “Carnie Wilson” (from Warner Bros.), “Day & Date” (Group W), “Stephanie Miller” (Buena Vista), “Gabrielle” (20th TV), “Richard Bey” (All American), “Mark Walberg” (Genesis), “Charles Perez” (Tribune), “Tempestt Bledsoe” (Columbia/TriStar), “George & Alana” (George Hamilton and Alana Stewart, from Rysher) and “Danny Bonaduce” (Buena Vista TV).

The two reality shows that are certain greenlights for next fall are 20th TV’s “America’s Most Wanted: Final Justice” and MGM TVs “LAPD.”

The rep firms say the new action hours with the best shot at getting launched for 1995-96 are All American TV’s “Baywatch Nights,” MGM’s “Outer Limits,” Genesis Entertainment’s “Tales From the Crypt” package of two half-hours off-Fox, BV’s “Land’s End,” Goldwyn TV’s “Flipper” and the just-released “One West Waikiki” from Rysher Entertainment.

– Jim Benson contributed to this report

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