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Hours Lose Power In Syndie Market

Rysher Entertainment, the young company that made a name for itself as a supplier of syndicated action hours, is looking to change course.

The Cox Broadcasting-owned TV and movie producer has confirmed that it is in serious discussions with two networks that have interest in “FX,” the action hour that had been touted as Rysher’s big new firstrun entry for fall.

Rysher exec VP Jim Burke says it is still possible that “FX” will end up in syndication.

But the mere fact the company is even contemplating a network outlet for the show says a lot about the state of the firstrun action and drama hour business today.

A year ago, Rysher was riding high with four hour programs on display at the National Assn. of Television Program Executives confab. And the company’s chief exec, Keith Samples, was extolling the virtues of the firstrun business – particularly its potential for massive profits.

With the disappearance of the financial interest and syndication rules, syndicators that opt for networks will likely have to give away a piece of the backend rerun profits. And the webs aren’t exactly known for giving producers complete creative control.

Rysher’s good fortune changed in December when it was forced to cancel two of its four shows, “RoboCop: The Series” and “Thunder in Paradise,” both casualties of low ratings in a crowded field.

Even with the change in direction, Rysher isn’t abandoning the firstrun business. It will still be a prominent player in two weeks at NATPE, hawking “Lonesome Dove” – this season’s top-rated new firstrun hour show – and “Highlander: The Series.”

But the demise of the new shows, and a changing TV landscape, has made Rysher more reluctant to introduce new shows into the firstrun market.

The biggest problem facing syndicators is a shortage of available time periods. The advent of the United Paramount and Warner Bros. networks, which combined now occupy three nights per week, and the success of some existing hour shows, have substantially reduced the number of prime time periods that independent stations have to program and to promote firstrun hours.

“There’s no doubt that there has been a tightening of the marketplace,” says Samuel Goldwyn TV prez Dick Askin, whose company enters the firstrun hour waters next season with a ’90s revival of “Flipper.”

Stations hold tight

“If you look at the new networks, they are replacing programming that wasn’t working anyway,” he says. “But I think the anticipation of the network rollout is more on the minds of the station people. They are not sure when they are going to a third night, so they are more reluctant to give up time periods.”

The sheer number of hours isn’t helping either. The number of action programs grew from 10 last year to 18 this season, and only one, Cannell’s “Renegade,” managed to match its year-ago time period average during the November sweeps.

Nearly 10 new projects will be on display at N ATPE, all trying to wrest time periods from the weaker hours.

To succeed today, a syndicator must spend more than $800,000 per episode on a firstrun hour, and often more than $1 million, Askin says.

“People are taking a hard look at the economics of hours,” Askin says. “It can be pretty intimidating if you are producing an hourlong adventure or drama at $800,000-plus per episode. It has to be supported not only by a strong domestic market, but also a strong international market.”

In an ideal world, each market would cover about 50% of the production costs.

Although the U.S. advertising market is healthy, Askin says many stations are balking at giving syndicators as much as nine minutes per hour in national ad time to help cover the high production costs for the all-barter shows.

Several programmers entering the hour game next fall are taking a different tack.

Buena Vista TV, which is distributing the new Fred Dryer series “Land’s End,” has increased the local time available to sell in return for a second weekly run, according to Janice Marinelli, the Disney company’s senior VP of sales.

Movies getting priority

That may not be so easy, however. Rysher’s Burke notes that stations are becoming reluctant to give up early fringe and access slots on weekends for firstrun hours, choosing instead to use the time to burn off their expensive movie inventories.

A few years ago, lower-budget hours prospered in the weekend dayparts. The syndicators would equally split 12 minutes of advertising time with the stations.

Then programmers started to insist on primetime berths, and to compete with network fare they raised their budgets, carved out more advertising time and took a huge chunk of it for themselves.

In hindsight, Burke thinks that may have been the wrong way to go, since many of the hours tend to work better in weekend fringe slots. With the firstrun hours slowly getting squeezed out of primetime, and the stations less willing to part with fringe slots, only the strongest hours will survive.

Burke believes that many producers who planned to launch new hours will now instead pitch them to the networks – forsaking the control that they coveted so much only a year ago.

With two new networks as potential buyers, syndicators may still be able to find outlets for their product. So far, however, United Paramount network prez Lucie Salhany says most of those pitching hour shows are the traditional suppliers of the Big Three webs and Fox.

Some producers of hours still find the firstrun arena too hard to give up.

BVTV, which won the domestic distribution rights to Skyvision’s “Land’s End” via a packaging deal put together by ICM’s Bob Sanitsky, didn’t get into the firstrun hour business until now “because we never came across the right property,” Marinelli says.

While syndicators are finding it a tougher market at home, they still have a home for their product abroad.

Foreign revenue alone will cover more than half of the show’s $1.1 million production budget, according to Askin. Goldwyn has committed $25 million toward production in the program’s first year.

Strong slots

And despite the reluctance to turn over weekend slots to hours, Goldwyn has secured some strong time periods in the top 20 markets for “Flipper,” including primetime on indies and access on some affils.

Of course, Goldwyn has made the series – which aims for the age 12 to 49 audience – more station-friendly by carving out an eight-minute national/six-minute local barter split.

But Askin acknowledges that it is a lot easier to be optimistic in January about a show’s chances of getting launched. Come July, when the reality sets in, many syndicators will have to take another look.

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