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Program Dearth Gives Analysts Pause

Shakeups in station ownership and network affiliation, as well as the possibility that the primetime access rule will die, are the big issues for Wall Street analysts at NATPE this year.

Otherwise, the National Assn. of Television Program Executives holds thin pickings for most analysts, with little in the way of new shows coming from publicly owned syndies like King World. Mostly it will be a time for walking the convention floor and catching up on news, as well as one-on-one briefings with syndie execs from companies like Warner Bros, Viacom and New World Communications, analysts say.

Sniffing around

“There is not a lot of new product in the marketplace… I’m going because I want to sniff and smell,” says Chris Dixon, an analyst with Paine Webber.

King World, traditionally a big draw for Wall Street analysts attending NATPE, will have a low profile this year with no new programs and no plans for any analyst briefing, although the company is hosting a dinner on Jan. 25 for analysts and some press. Tribune, which has held select briefings in the past, is not having any briefing this year either.

Programming issues won’t generate much excitement for Wall Street visits. Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif: “There’s not a lot of new shows out there. There is nothing new in the way of game shows, minimal amount of talkshows… more of a move to one-hour action-adventure,” although she added that some new independents like Seagull were emerging.

There are also fewer time slots available for new programming as a result of the launch of two new networks and affiliation switches flowing from Fox’s deal with New World last year, issues sure to dominate discussion, analysts say.

“A lot of station time periods are now being taken out by the new networks,” Reif said. She added that the affiliate changes meant some stations would have more time, like the new Fox affiliates, but many more would have less time – like those that switched to CBS or affiliated with a new network.

The squeeze on time “makes it so much harder for the syndies. There is less time periods available and more firstrun network quality programs will be produced,” Reif said.

Firstrun syndies also have to worry about the possible repeal of the primetime access rule, allowing network affiliates in the top 50 markets to run off-network reruns. Cowen & Co. analyst Harold Vogel says this will be one of the big issues at NATPE.

Repeal of the rule would make life a lot tougher for firstrun syndies, Vogel said. “They will face more competition obviously if a big affiliate station in L.A. or Chicago has the choice between a talkshow or a declining game show and filmed entertainment programming or some show like ‘Home Improvement,'” he added.

PW’s Dixon said programmers such as Disney had been lobbying the FCC hard to repeal the rule, which would guarantee more of a bidding war for re-run rights to “Home Improvement” by bringing network affiliates into the market.

Analysts said talk of station acquisitions will also be on people’s minds, given strength in the broadcast economy and the possibility that the FCC will liberalize station ownership laws.

Station talk

PW’s Dixon said some stations would still be thinking about affiliation switches. “Discussions will be going on there and the question is which partner will end up with who,” he said.

Dixon added that NATPE would give analysts a chance to find out how well Viacom and Paramount have integrated their syndication sales forces.

Seidler Co. analyst Jeff Logsdon said analysts would be looking at All American Communications, which is launching “Baywatch Nights.” All-American has invited analysts and investors to meet with its chairman and CEO, Anthony Scotti, and its CFO, Thomas Bradshaw, through the convention. Logsdon said another issue for analysts would be how well Disney’s afternoon programming is doing against Fox and Warner Bros.

More ‘conceptual’

Logsdon said NATPE was becoming “a little bit more conceptual in nature” given that much of the program sales had already occurred and a lot of news gets reported in trade press ahead of time.

Interest from the analyst community this year also has been affected by Walt Disney’s scheduling its first analyst briefing in two years on Jan. 26. Disney’s briefing not only means that most of the analysts attending NATPE will leave early but analysts from money management firms who normally don’t attend the show will drop in on their way to L.A.

Reif says that despite the absence of new programming, NATPE is still “a very big event for the TV industry.” Reif is moderating a panel on new cable networks on Jan. 24.

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