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Access pilots grounded

NEW ORLEANS – It’s a statistic that has stunned the industry: For the first time ever, no distributor at NATPE is pushing any fall 1997 pilots specifically aimed at weekday prime access, the most lucrative time period in TV syndication.

Even top-dog distributors have been dissuaded from trying to launch a new access show this fall, because there are simply no slots available in access.

Two trends have accelerated the tug of war between TV distributors and station groups over prices of off-network and firstrun syndicated programs, leading to the lack of new offerings for prime access.

* Federal regulatory changes have resulted in a consolidation of power among major-market TV stations.

* The muscle exercised by distributors of hit strips to secure long-term license terms for such access series as the King World duo “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” and Paramount’s “Entertainment Tonight” has been formidable.

While the syndicators are carping that station groups now have the upper hand, the broadcasters retort that it’s simply a case of the worm turning. “The leverage has now shifted from the program suppliers to the station groups” as a result of mergers and consolidation over the last couple of years, Barry Thurston, president of Columbia TriStar TV Distribution, said.

Precarious position

Columbia TriStar is in a particularly vulnerable position, because it doesn’t own either a TV station group or a broadcast network.

Another major studio that doesn’t own TV stations, Warner Bros. TV, also is alarmed at the trend toward station consolidation.

Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Distribution, says that until two years ago he was able to pitch shows to the ABC-owned TV stations and the CBS O&Os along with other distributors, and it was a case of “may the best deal win.”

But that’s all changed. Eyemark, the distribution arm of the CBS stations created after the merger of Group W and CBS, “has first dibs on all of the CBS time periods,” Robertson said.

Similarly, Robertson has found that in the aftermath of Disney’s takeover of ABC, it’s not easy to find open slots within the ABC Group, with Buena Vista TV, Disney’s syndie arm, getting preference.

Robertson also mentioned the merger last year of the Fox and New World stations, which gives Twentieth TV, the distribution arm of Fox, instant access to 40% of the country.

One of the ways a mega-station group can exercise leverage, Thurston said, is to tell a distributor that the deal it makes must be with all or none of its stations.

Greg Meidel, chairman of the Universal TV Group, agreed with Robertson and Thurston that the major station groups will hold syndicators’ feet to the fire,sometimes demanding cash for clearance.

Getting even

But station group executives say they’re just trying to rein in some of the record prices distributors have chalked up in recent years, both for firstrun series like King World’s “Oprah” and Warner Bros.’ “Rosie O’Donnell,” and off-network sitcoms like Warner Bros.’ “Friends,” Buena Vista’s “Home Improvement” and Columbia TriStar’s “Seinfeld.”

According to Barry Baker, president of Sinclair Broadcasting, one of the best things to come out of the mergers of TV station groups is that “we won’t have to take B and C product from distributors” as the price of getting a popular series.

The need to control programming costs may have helped give rise to the glut of mergers among station groups, according to Kevin O’Brien, VP/

general manager of KTVU San Francisco and head of Cox Broadcasting.

O’Brien is bemused at Robertson’s loud complaints about TV stations clamping a squeeze on Warner Bros.’ syndication profits. “Time Warner has merged with Turner Broadcasting to create a giant company that could end up having negative effects” on the Cox TV stations, O’Brien said.

And if TV stations have no new pilots to look at for the 1997-98 season in access, a number of industry experts say there could be as many as a half-dozen access wannabes for the fall of 1998, including DreamWorks TV’s newsmagazine hosted by Connie Chung and Maury Povich, and the just-announced “National Geographic Tonight” from Warner Bros.

But if you listen to the syndication community, the pilots with the best chance of making it to series will be the ones produced by the distributors who own TV stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

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