Hot-slot hustle

Syndies struggle to find next breakout show

In June 1996, all eyes in syndication were on a spunky stand-up comic named Rosie O’Donnell.

Though the number of syndicators had shrunk to about a dozen from 20-30 five years earlier, those left standing were in good spirits thanks to “Rosie,” which had the makings of a hit. When it delivered on that promise, it gave hope to an industry in need of a lift.

Five years later, with another fall season approaching, the syndie ranks are even thinner and the mood is considerably darker. The number of free-standing syndicators has been cut in half by consolidation and no “Rosie”-like success has graced a single studio.

As the fall 2001 syndie lineup comes into focus, the chances of a show popping from the pipeline seem slimmer than ever.

“It’s just a tough, tough marketplace,” sighs one syndicator. “It’s probably as tough as I’ve ever seen it.”

The hit drought itself has made stations and studios skittish about decision-making, as they copy and overload every genre that shows a sign of life.

When “Judge Judy” began to take off after a few seasons, for example, every studio was pitching a knock-off. Few of these shows have become profitable, and with 11 gavelers currently on the air, the genre has cannibalized itself.

All this comes at a time when auds are increasingly fractionalized.

What’s more, consolidation has changed the faces and paces of the sector every year for nearly a decade.

“No two years of the past five or six have been identical in pattern of shows introduced or how quickly they were cleared. I don’t think anyone can make a generalization or projection that will easily hold up even three months from now,” says station rep Bill Carroll of Katz.

“The way it impacts things is most of us become a lot more conservative in the way we approach things. If you have to choose among the known and the unknown, you have to gravitate to the known,” Carroll adds.

What happens then is that stations hold onto programs, whose ratings in the past would not have warranted renewals, simply because there’s more comfort in them. And stations become wary of paying big license fees for new shows that they can’t be sure will make them any money.

In times of economic downturn, like now, stations’ grip on their license fees and time periods becomes even tighter.

With a scarcity of timeslots and license fees, which help studios cover production costs, fewer projects have been shopped and even fewer make it to air. The result: less opportunity for a hit.

Out of a dozen strips that debuted this season, no more than four are likely to return for a soph season. The number of returning shows could be as low as two.

About nine new shows (five talkers, one game, three dating shows) are set to preem this fall in the failures’ places (see chart).

By contrast, this season saw the return of six strips out of about ten that preemed last season: gavelers “Divorce Court” and “Judge Mathis,” talker “Queen Latifah,” mag “National Enquirer’s Uncovered,” gamer “Family Feud” and dating reality strip “Blind Date.”

If things proceed as insiders expect, the following season’s slump will be worse.

“Come fall we will see fewer and fewer shows being developed, and it scares me,” one syndicator says.

One factor that has agitated the marketplace this year is, however, likely to begin resolution by the next cycle.

That’s the yet-to-be-determined programming future of the top-market Chris Craft TV stations that Fox is acquiring.

The stations, which include strong UPN affils in New York and Los Angeles, have yet to pick up any new programming for the 2001-02 season ahead of their acquisition being finalized.

This has been a source of frustration for distribs selling shows aimed at the non-traditional affils.

The traditional affils of ABC, NBC and CBS tend to have few slots open, as they’re stocked with network fare and syndie stalwarts like “Oprah,” “Live!,” “Rosie,” court shows like “Judy” in daytime and in access with “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “Inside Edition” and “Extra.”

So some distribs must target affils of Fox, the WB and UPN. Yet Fox can be hard to crack since it’s got a sister programming company in Twentieth Television that’s dedicated to providing product for its air. And Tribune’s stations, the WB affils in several major markets, are tended to by Trib’s production division.

With Chris Craft in a holding pattern, lots of distribs appear to have felt a pinch.

“Right now things seem to be in a holding pattern. In essence, we’ve been circling the airport for months,” Carroll says.

“This Chris-Craft situation really is the most visible manifestation of what’s happening in the overall marketplace: consolidation,” Carroll says. “We’re much more aware of it because it’s particularly impactful in New York and L.A., where the tone is set for elsewhere.”

Carroll does point out, however, that the effects of Chris-Craft stations situation may not be as dramatic as some perceive it to be. Distribs that are having a tough time selling their product may be using Chris Craft as an excuse.

Surviving the doom and gloom from which the biz is suffering, is becoming a matter of boning up on resourcefulness.

Carroll says he expects syndies to start looking more often to cable for formats, talent and fully-produced shows, citing two of the stronger entries for the fall, “Ananda” and “Crossing Over With John Edward,” as evidence that it’s already happening.

“Projects don’t get 2-3 years to come to fruition like ‘Judy’ did. Studios can only keep a show on that from an economic standpoint is perceived as successful or on the verge of profitability,” Carroll says. “So what’s great about Ananda Lewis or John Edward is that you can turn on TV and see them work and see them do on cable something like what they’re going to do in syndication.”

The problem with going to cable is that it’s niche-oriented, where firstrun syndication serves the broadcast set, so the depth of cable’s wares as they apply to a broader audience remains questionable.

Twentieth Television is turning toward its co-owned local stations to revisit the old method of growing shows locally, with the launch of “Texas Justice.”

Since TV stations have better facilities than they used to and can often provide cheaper labor than can New York or Los Angeles, shows can be tried out on a tight budget.

Word has it that NBC’s new syndie outfit as well as some others are headed down that road as well.

“We’re looking for good programming anywhere we can,” one syndicator says.

Dual runs on broadcast or cable nets, which can share production costs, are also likely to become more prevalent.

“Crossing Over” initiated on Sci Fi, for example, and will continue to air there once it bows in syndie.

And the buzz on Telepictures’ “Elimidate” is that it may also get a weekly run on the WB.

Studios are also exercising discipline in keeping production costs down at the outset and in knowing when to hold ’em.

Par’s “Caroline” was cleared at NATPE this past January, then pulled back because its budget couldn’t be met by the license fees the show was projected to draw.

Par could have been in for a loss as high as $15 million in the show’s first year if it went forward.

In order to avoid such red ink at the start, one studio exec says its important to just aim low when it comes to budget.

While the exec used to take pitches for shows in the $350,000-400,000 per episode range, he says now his studio won’t show much interest for anything they can’t see being executed for south of $200,000.

On a slightly less dreary note, Carroll says syndicated programming on broadcast TV is still a good way to reach auds; the biz just needs to make some adjustments to the times.

“We just have to do it a different way,” he says. “Execs who’ve been in this business for 10 years see it differently than those who have been in it for 20; and those who enter it in five years will have different expecations. But it will still be here.”

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