No.1 firstrun syndie 'Xena' will ride into sunset

“Xena: Warrior Princess,” the top-rated firstrun syndie action hour, will conclude its run at the end of the 2000-01 TV season.

The show, produced by Renaissance Pictures and distribbed by Studios USA Domestic TV (SUDT), will wrap production on its sixth season this spring and continue to air through summer 2001.

It airs on 200 TV stations, reaching 99% of the United States.

The move does not mean SUDT is getting out of the firstrun hour business. The studio launched a block last year, “Back 2 Back Action,” comprised of two half-hour shows, “Cleopatra 2525″ and “Jack of All Trades.” Block is undergoing major changes of its own.

SUDT has decided to change the sophomore actioner to include only “Cleo”; it will be expanded to an hour format and “Jack” will be discontinued starting in January.

The studio shot six hourlong episodes of “Cleo” that can take over for the previous incarnation of “Back 2 Back” once “Jack” concludes. Studio is in post-production on those six episodes.

Future SUDT hours are likely to be distributed under a different economic model than “Xena,” “Back 2 Back Action” and the studio’s former “Hercules.”

“This company from its initial heritage has had a tremendous run in producing action hours,” SUDT prexy Steve Rosenberg said. “We’re going to continue to be in the hour biz, but it may not be in that once a week, syndicated action hour model as we have been. It’s been more difficult to get traction in that.”

Although “Xena,” which is produced for well north of $1 million per episode, is the top-rated firstrun syndie action hour, ratings have progressively declined over the years.

Rosenberg said one reason that the show’s ratings have eroded is that the pluck time periods in which it was launched are no longer available.

Weblets squeeze actioners

Since the advent of multinight programming on broadcast networks the WB, UPN and to a certain extent Fox, “Xena” and shows like it no longer air in primetime during the week as they once did. Instead, syndie weeklies are relegated primarily to weekend afternoons, when viewership is lower and the chances of preemption in favor of sports and other programming is high.

Firstrun syndie hours are still a good business for shows heavily cleared and targeted for the international market. SUDT’s primary focus, however, is on the domestic market.

In the last four years, the company has also made its mark in the more lucrative domestic firstrun strip business. In November 1996 it acquired Multimedia Entertainment, which brought “Sally Jessy Raphael” and “Jerry Springer” into the company fold. Then “Maury” moved to SUDT from Paramount in September 1998, and this fall SUDT launched strips “Arrest & Trial” and “Lover or Loser.”

“A&T” is one of few shows in several years to secure coveted access time periods. “Lover” airs in dual platforms on USA Network and in broadcast syndication.

Rosenberg added that he’s optimistic about the model the company is using with the hour series “Invisible Man,” which has a dual platform on Sci Fi and in broadcast syndication.

Spinoff possible

Rosenberg also said that while no spinoff of “Xena” is in the works, it is a possibility down the line. And he’s intent on continuing to work with the show’s producers, Renaissance Pictures, and its star, Lucy Lawless, on future projects.

Lawless will likely talk publicly this week about her future, as she’s slated to appear on “Rosie O’Donnell” today, as a co-host on “Live! With Regis” on Wednesday and on “Conan O’Brien” Wednesday night.

“Xena” topped the firstrun weekly action hour genre in the 1999-2000 TV season, averaging a 3.3 national household rating. “Back 2 Back Action” led the rookie hours with a 2.5.

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