Cool reception at NATPE

NEW ORLEANS — Arctic winds have transformed sultry New Orleans from the Big Easy into the Big Freezy, gladdening the hearts of NATPE distributors who’ve already begun pouncing on captive TV station execs deprived of ferryboat rides, open-air strolls through the French Quarter and 18 holes of golf on local courses.

So far, Eyemark’s ”Martha Stewart Living,” Worldvision’s ”Pictionary,” Warner’s ”People’s Court” and Twentieth TV’s ”The Home Team” are the only new firstrun strips with momentum as TV stations continue to book their appointments over the four days of NATPE, which kicks off today.

However, Bruce Johansen, president of NATPE, says there may be a few surprises to come. A couple of syndicators are expected to unveil new projects or alliances at the convention.

Among them, All American may announce clearances in some top markets for its new yakker ”Arthel & Fred,” and perhaps for its gameshows.

Despite the absence of several large domestic distributors this year, registration and exhibition space for NATPE is expanding. The international contingent is hefty, and the number of advertisers has doubled. Universal, Eyemark and others are expanding their booths, and floor space is expected to reach 400,000 square feet. Overall registration is expected to hit a record 18,500.

While more people are attending the convention, many station managers are taking a wait-and-see approach to buying new product.

”There was some disappointment in the new product on the air this fall, and the numbers are below expectations,” Johansen said. ”There’s a cautionary trend.”

Sellers are taking even fewer risks. Distributors that launched any of this season’s flops have already lost $7 million to $9 million, prompting many to sit on the sidelines.

The result, of course, is ”slim pickings,” according to the programming chief of one of the largest station groups.

”Most of what we’re focusing on are renewals,” said Marc Schacher, vice president of programming and develop-ment at Tribune Broadcasting Co. ”There’s not that much new product, and there’s nothing that we felt strongly enough about as a group to go after.”

And then there weren’t many

The scarcity of new projects mirrors the disappearance of several major domestic distributors from NATPE, mostly as a result of massive consolidation in the TV business.

New World has been swallowed by News Corp., Multimedia by Universal, and Turner Program Services by Time Warner. MGM has chosen not to exhibit.

Many of the new strips going into NATPE with top-market clearances are part of inhouse deals on one of the new super-sized station groups, such as Twentieth TV’s ”Home Team,” which will air on the Fox and New World sta-tions — an impressive 40% of the country.

”Producers all want room on the shelf to display their product, especially shelves at the front of the store,” said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting. ”But if a show is good, you can put it on in cruddy timeslots on cruddy stations and the audience will find it. Good shows absolutely battle their way to the surface. The problem is, most are not in that category.”

Bell added that stations have plenty of cash to buy new shows, ”but there’s no money for second- and third-order knockoffs. It’s a cautious year for programmers because so many things failed, except for the unpredictable flash of lightning in a bottle — Rosie O’Donnell.”

Distributors with established shows that are steady performers will certainly benefit from station reluctance to try new product.

Take Universal Domestic TV. It chose to buy a couple of veteran talkshows for $45 million, ”Sally Jessy Raphael” and ”Jerry Springer,” rather than chance launching a new strip. Universal will be focusing on upgrades, multiyear renewals, double runs and wooing better advertisers.

If new firstrun product is relatively scarce, another programming category is conspicuously absent from the shopping lists of most TV stations: the rerun sitcom.

TV station reps like Katz and Blair already have started telling their clients that the dozen or so comedies expected to push their way into syndication for the fall of 1999 and beyond have very little Nielsen potential.

The Katz TV Group, a rep firm that advises TV stations on programming decisions, has analyzed 10 sitcoms that could go into the marketplace for pre-sale in calendar 1997. The only one Katz did not find wanting is Warner Bros.’ ”The Drew Carey Show.”

The Katz test

Three of the nine underachieving sitcoms — Carsey-Werner’s ”Cybill,” Universal’s ”NewsRadio” and Columbia TriStar’s ”The Single Guy” — fail one of Katz’s most crucial time-tested criteria. To work in syndication, at least 18% of the viewers of a comedy during its network primetime run have to be men 18 to 49, said Jim Curtin, an associate director of programming for Katz. The aforementioned trio doesn’t meet that level.Another trio — Eyemark Entertainment’s ”Caroline in the City,” Warner Bros.’ ”The John Larroquette Show” and Warner Bros.’ ”The Parent Hood” — don’t measure up to Katz’s second test, which postulates that if a show gets good ratings mainly on the strength of a hit comedy lead-in, its chances of capturing an audience in syndication drop dramati-cally.

The final three — Eyemark’s ”Dave’s World,” Warners’ ”The Wayans Brothers” and Columbia TriStar’s ”The Nanny” — come a cropper on the third Katz rule. This one holds that, throughout its first four years in network primetime, a comedy should chalk up at least a 20% higher Nielsen rating in adults 25 to 54 than the average net-work sitcom.

Blair and other reps point to one solution: Get the right to double-run future sitcoms and, if permitted by contract, start double-running existing sitcoms.

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