Early deals quickly close slots

A number of syndie stips are filing up daytime

HOLLYWOOD — As they entered NATPE a year ago, syndicators of firstrun programming bemoaned the dearth of available time periods in key markets. Many blamed this scarcity on the fact that Chris Craft stations, which control key syndie outlets in cities like New York and Los Angeles, weren’t buying shows, pending approval of their acquisition by News Corp.

Whatever the cause, getting a series on the air wasn’t easy. Unable to find a latenight half-hour free in New York, for example, Lions Gate Entertainment scrapped launch plans for the reality dating strip “Who Wants to Date a Hooters Girl?”

Meanwhile, studios that did get the necessary big-market clearances sometimes found their time periods couldn’t deliver enough viewers to make producing their series economically worthwhile.

Paramount Domestic Television’s abrupt decision to scuttle its Caroline Rhea-hosted talker is a prime example.

Things are different for fall 2002. Since Chris Craft stations are no longer in limbo, a large number of freshman series won’t be renewed, Rosie O’Donnell is retiring from talk and the station landscape is more open.

Well, at least daytime was open.

“To a large degree, the daytime market is on its way to being closed,” says Tribune Entertainment prexy Dick Askin, whose team has cleared the psychic-themed “Beyond With James van Praagh” in 60% of the country for fall 2002.

Early selection

Indeed, before syndicators had even produced the first episodes of new-for-fall-2001 series, a number of strips, including gameshows “Weakest Link” from NBC Enterprises and “Pyramid” from Columbia TriStar Domestic TV, were cleared for 2002.

“This year is an anomaly in that the selling season started so early,” says John Weiser, executive VP at Col TriStar.

Weekend time periods, however, are wide open.

According to Chuck Larsen, an independent distribution consultant overseeing domestic syndication of Alliance Atlantis-produced action hour “John Woo’s Once a Thief,” 30% of syndicated weekly hours on the air, both firstrun and off-net, won’t be back in fall 2002.

A look at November sweeps supports this assertion. Tribune’s “Beastmaster” (1.1), New Line TV’s “The Lost World” (0.9), Paramount’s “Relic Hunter” (0.9) and Columbia’s “Sheena” (0.8) are among a number of weekly first-run action hours hovering at or below a 1.0 average audience rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Add to that a number of low-rated off-net hours ending their two-year clearance deals, and it’s obvious stations need to retool their weekends.

In response, Tribune, which has enjoyed back-to-back successful launches of action hours the last two years with “Andromeda” and “Mutant X,” has in development the Roman-era-themed “SPQR” and “The Ultimate Adventure Company” (based on the real adventures of explorer Barry Clifford). Universal Worldwide Television, meanwhile, is developing an action hour based on the summer film release “The Fast and the Furious.”

Larsen’s October Moon Prods. has mostly cleared for fall 2002 all 22 first-season episodes of the international-terrorist-themed “Once a Thief,” all of which were actually produced in 1996 for the Fox network, which ultimately passed on the series.

Despite stations’ apparent needs, however, a scarcity of actioners are in development.

“The international market for action hours has pretty much fallen apart over the last few seasons,” explains Larsen. “You used to be able to get $800,000 per episode from the international market. That’s down to less than $300,000, and that’s very difficult to make up domestically.” The dearth of firstrun dramas could create opportunities for small producers of cheaper-to-produce weekly half-hours to find decent time periods.

Unable to get his weekly half-hour Latin-themed entertainment news show “Urban Latino” on the air last year, Robert Rose, president of New York-based Artist and Idea Management, says stations have been more enthusiastic about the project this year.

“There’s almost been a bidding war in some markets,” Rose claims.

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