‘Twas a quiet season before ’98

Syndication Brief

For the syndication world, fall 1997 is shaping up to be the calm before a storm.

With the sales process for 1998’s new offerings under way much earlier than in previous years, the industry turned its attention to the coming battle between next year’s big-ticket newcomers, which include talk-variety vehicles fronted by Roseanne, Donny & Marie and Howie Mandel.

Latenight aside, the countdown to premiere for syndication’s new faces of 1997 has been overshadowed this summer by sales news and development buzz on projects in the works for 1998. In the local trenches, however, some station managers complain that the stepped-up pace of buying for fall 1998 has been a major distraction from more immediate priorities.

“It’s crazy,” says Michael Eigner, general manager of Tribune Broadcasting’s WPIX New York. “We’ve never been pushed to make our (program buying) decisions so far in advance. We still don’t know what’s going to happen with the new shows we’ve got for this season.”

And that, of course, is the $64,000 question everyone in the TV biz ponders this time of year.

Syndie’s freshman class of ’97 is an eclectic lot, running the gamut in firstrun from lifestyle guru Martha Stewart to gridiron hero Terry Bradshaw to James Brolin in his first-ever syndicated skein.

On the off-network side, none of the primetime comedy graduates are expected to reach the same ratings heights as “Seinfeld” and “Home Improvement.” Expectations are high, however, for the weekend off-net bows of edgy dramas “The X-Files” and “NYPD Blue.”

In daytime, the big focus for syndie biz watchers next month is Martha, Martha, Martha. Stewart’s half-hour “Martha Stewart Living,” distributed by CBS’ Eyemark Entertainment, is expanding to a strip after four successful years as a weekend show.

Stewart promises to deliver more of what made her a hit on weekends: how-to segments; home improvement ideas and lifestyle tips, and generally grand displays of her trademark practical elegance.

Competing with Stewart on the how-to and useful tips front is NFL hall-of-famer Terry Bradshaw, who is heading up a throwback to the “Hour Magazine” format dubbed “The Home Team” from Fox’s Twentieth TV.

One thing noticeably absent from the syndie fall schedule is a new talkshow in the single-topic mode popularized by “Phil Donahue” and “Oprah Winfrey.” The only newcomer that comes close is Eyemark’s issues-oriented half-hour hosted by Connecticut news anchor Gayle King. Designed as a companion to “Martha Stewart Living,” “The Gayle King Show” will air immediately after “Martha” in many markets.

Local KNBC sportscaster Fred Roggin takes on the Regis Philbin role alongside Arthel Neville in All American Television’s “The Arthel & Fred Show.” The light-hearted talk-variety hour is billed as a “younger, hipper version of ‘Live With Regis & Kathie Lee.’ ”

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is presiding over a Gotham-based version of “The People’s Court,” distributed by Warner Bros. Producers plan to play up the new interactive and online components of the show while retaining the instant justice elements that made the original series such a hit from 1981-93.

“Pictionary” is the lone new entry on the gameshow front. Worldvision Enterprises and host/co-executive producer Alan Thicke have high hopes for the celebrity guest-driven half-hour, described as “charades with a pen.”

Leading the charge for the off-net sitcom brigade this fall is Paramount’s NBC hit “Frasier.” Stations in New York, Los Angeles and other major markets are ponying up six-figure license fees to run the show Monday-Friday, so they’re hoping Kelsey Grammer’s “Cheers” spinoff will have some of the same traction as “Seinfeld.”

The Carsey-Werner Co.’s “Grace Under Fire” is living up to its title. Episodes from the first four seasons are set to bow as a strip next month, even though the Brett Butler-starrer did not land a spot on ABC’s fall schedule. ABC brass, noting that a full season’s worth of episodes have been ordered, say the show will be back sometime mid-season.

Second-string off-net comedy players for the fall are Disney’s “Boy Meets World” and Warner Bros.’ “Living Single.” In addition to Twentieth TV’s dramas “The X-Files” and “NYPD Blue,” Chuck Norris is expected to kick up some dust as his CBS drama “Walker, Texas Ranger” moves into syndication.

As for firstrun hours, syndicators are fielding everything from the period piece “Conan the Adventurer,” from Western Intl. Syndication, to Stacy Keach in a revival of his role as Mickey Spillane’s famed gumshoe “Mike Hammer.” The latter marks the first foray into original drama series by New York-based indie MG/Perin, Inc.

James Brolin leads by inspiration as the mentor of an elite team of fighter pilots in Eyemark Entertainment’s “Pensacola: Wings of Gold.” The show is a network/syndication hybrid, having been developed by CBS’ syndie arm for a specific timeslot (7 p.m. Saturday) for the network’s owned-and-operated stations.

Sci-fi is the underpinning of Tribune Entertainment’s “Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict” and “Nightman.” Covert activity is the raison d’etre of Rysher Entertainment’s “Solider of Fortune, Inc.” Talking cars and other flashy gizmos are part and parcel of Universal TV’s “Team Knight Rider.”

Syndication has a poor track record in launching firstrun comedies, but Disney’s Buena Vista TV and Warner Bros. are giving it a shot with hourlong TV spinoffs of their theatrical franchises “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Police Academy,” respectively.

Also skirting the edges of comedy is “Due South,” the former CBS series about a Canadian Mountie transplanted to Chicago. It’s rising again in syndication with original episodes from Alliance Communications and Polygram TV.

MGM is mounting a big-budget revival of the 1980s syndie series “Fame.” The new model chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of struggling performers in L.A., thus the revised title, “Fame L.A.”

Can Rip Torn play Rod Serling? All American has tapped the veteran thesp to deliver the spooky intros to its anthology series “Ghost Stories.”

And finally, Paramount is taking the road less traveled with a wildlife reality hour, “Wild Things,” that promises to bring “Cops”-style in-your-face camerawork to nature programming.

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