Starless syndie biz in development gridlock

Companies, exex cautious about greenlights

Forget Magic Johnson, Roseanne and Martin Short: The bulk of syndie projects being developed for 2001 are based on formats — not high-profile deals with big-name stars.

Among the earliest format-driven projects aimed at fall 2001 debuts are a handful of panel shows along the lines of ABC’s “The View,” as well as “Zobmondo!,” from Studios USA Domestic Television, taking a cue from the board game of the same name.

Low-rated, money-losing star-driven projects in recent seasons have encouraged some syndicators to shy away from similar deals. And the chatter in the biz over who’s doing what has become quieter for it.

“For sure there’s less buzz, but it’s because the things people did buzz about were always talent-driven vehicles, like Martin Short, Howie Mandel, Dr. Laura,” Cliff Lachman, exec VP of programming and production for Twentieth Television, said.

“One reason this has been a tough development season is that it used to be conventional wisdom that you buy a big name and launch a show on a big name,” he added.

These days, people are seeing that format is king, Lachman said. “People have been burned by the failure of big-name projects.”

And studios, which are traditionally mum on development anyway, are keeping an even tighter lid on their activity, as the chance of having an idea copied is a lot more likely than that of another studio striking a deal with talent or a property that’s tied up exclusively.

Caution flags flying

In addition to being format-focused, firstrun syndication development is running into more red and yellow lights in general this summer than it has seen in several years, contrary to the greenlight frenzy in film.

Traditionally, syndie studios cook up ideas and sign development deals throughout the summer for the fall of the following year, with some standout projects even moving along as far as early-buying stations.

This year is different.

“People are a lot more skittish this year,” one development exec said. “At this time last year, there was a lot more buzz about what pilots were being shot.”

And one TV agent described the biz as “bearish” and “tough.”

“I don’t think it’s going to get easier,” the agent said.

Station rep Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Media, said he’s usually shown early tape or given soft pitches on projects that studios are high on, and he’s not seen one yet.

And at least one or two big projects — like last year’s “Dr. Laura” — are normally out in the station marketplace by now, usually with a group deal attached, Carroll said. But, again, this year, there’s nothing to report yet.

Consolidation consternation

Many studio execs and the packaging agents who pitch projects agree that the lack of star power among projects is not the only culprit behind the subdued season.

Execs say consolidation and the staffing upheavals that have rocked the business this year are also major factors.

Granted, the syndie sea changes are hard to miss.

The prexy posts at both King World and Fox’s Twentieth Television are open, and Sony’s Columbia TriStar TV Distrib has a new head, as does Pearson’s North American operation.

King World and Paramount Domestic Television are both under the same umbrella now, ever since CBS and Viacom merged, leaving execs wondering if integration plans may mean merging the companies and then downsizing them.

The Vivendi takeover of Seagram may have future implications on Polygram TV-turned-Universal Worldwide Television, as well as on Barry Diller’s Studios USA Domestic Television.

Once the Vivendi deal is done, some speculate Diller may make a play to buy or align with NBC. Others say Sony could hook up with NBC, which has displayed burgeoning firstrun efforts of its own this year.

The result of consolidation is that not only are there fewer individual shops to pitch or be pitched, but that several of the final “yes”es on projects are difficult to get, because the execs who normally give them out at the companies that remain are simply not there, or are stymied by their concern over their job stability.

One observer, for example, referred to Par as “Par”- alyzed.”

“Due to all of the consolidation, many people are being a little more careful,” added producer/distributor Ira Bernstein, prexy of Mercury Entertainment.

Time keeps on slipping

And while people are being “careful,” time continues to fly.

“It’s not too late to get a big show out there, but it’s getting there — by the NATPE model, you have to have it shot by Nov. 1 or you’re late,” said one programming exec, explaining that in order to have projects ready to sell in time for January’s annual programming confab, they should be well on their way now.

Lachman, however, said that since the death of company prexy Rick Jacobson in March, his team has managed by stepping up its communication with Mitch Stern, who headsFox Television Stations, to whom Jacobson had reported.

Another difference in the syndie scene this year is that some of the reality and game projects that in the past would have been shopped first to syndication, are now making stops at the broadcast networks in order to feed the hunger for primetime reality hits like the formatted “Survivor.”

Pilots in flight

While this season’s impasses may spell trouble, not all activity at syndie creative labs has ceased.

Among the dozen or so projects that have come to light, some do include known talent. Some projects already on the syndie radar:

  • A Caroline Rhea talker at Par’s Big Ticket Television;

  • “Kathy Levine,” a Jerry Springer gamer and a possible talker with fashion’s Isaac Mizrahi at Studios USA;

  • Peter Engel/NBC’s “Kiki Melendez”;

  • “Court Stew” and “The Bravest” from Hearst/National Entertainment;

  • “Parole Board” from Lions Gate/National Entertainment;

  • Lion’s Gate’s “Hawaiian Tropic Undercover”;

  • Tribune’s “All You Need Is Love” and “Escape From New York”;

  • Columbia’s Carmen Electra project;

  • Team’s “Spartacus”;

  • Telepictures’ Tom Leykis project;

  • and Imagine’s “Seacrest at Night.”

Ultimately, the slowdown may turn out to be good for the business, some say, as natural selection takes its course.

“If there’s something or someone that hot, that good, you may not have a ‘yes’ person there, but you certainly still have people who know what works and doesn’t when they see it,” said Babette Perry, ICM’s head of broadcasting and news. “And they will see it.”

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