‘Phil’ leads talk charge

'Link,' 'Pyramid' generate Vegas heat

HOLLYWOOD — It’s difficult to imagine a television season harder for firstrun syndication than 2001-02.

First, the advertising base collapsed. Then an entire crop of new shows launched beneath the enormous shadow of Sept. 11. And across the schedule, ratings continue to erode.

But perhaps the old saying that failure breeds success will hold true for syndication in fall 2002. The upside is that all those cancellations and time-period downgrades are creating vacancies in that coveted late-afternoon period that leads into the local news.

To launch talkshows last year, syndicators had to cobble together schedules with a lot of clearances for late-morning slots, when viewership levels are typically low, often relying on less-visible non-network affiliated stations.

That’s at least partly why, of the four talkshows launched last fall, none earned higher than a 1.2 average audience rating during November sweeps, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Playing for slots

Next fall, better time periods in which to launch shows should improve ratings.

“There’s a big difference in being on at 10 o’clock in the morning and leading into the 5 o’clock news,” explains Greg Meidel, president of programming at Paramount Domestic Television. The Viacom unit has teamed with sibling King World to put hourlong talker “Dr. Phil” in early fringe time periods in 86% of the country next fall.

Which brings us to another important reason why 2002 could be a rebound year for syndication.

Not since “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” in 1996 has syndication produced a successful daytime talkshow. But after big-money misses with the likes of Roseanne, Martin Short and Ananda Lewis, King World seems to have pretty good odds with relationships guru Phil McGraw.

Unlike the others, McGraw is a proven daytime draw whose regular Tuesday appearances on King World’s “The Oprah Winfrey Show” often spike ratings as much as 10%. That ultimately convinced the powerful Winfrey to spin the popular McGraw into his own strip.

Roger King, chairman-CEO of King World, has declared “Dr. Phil” “the biggest launch ever” in terms of time periods and license fees. He has also said that while it’s costing $35 million-$40 million to produce and market the skein, King World is making $100 million in yearly license fees for “Dr. Phil.”

“I’ve never seen a firstrun show launched with these kinds of license fees,” he adds. “They’re staggering.”

Of course, King said much the same thing last year about “The Ananda Lewis Show” (1.2 rating during November). But King World’s daytime competitors agree that, given Winfrey’s profile and the popularity of McGraw, “Dr. Phil” will be the biggest launch of the season.

” ‘Dr. Phil’ is probably the preeminent project, at least in terms of market perception, for next fall,” admits Dick Askin, president of Tribune Entertainment, which is launching the psychic-themed “Beyond With James Van Praagh” on Tribune stations in 2002.

But while Oprah’s influence makes “Dr. Phil” the favorite, a number of other syndicators are trying to talk their way into that late afternoon slot, too.

With Rosie O’Donnell retiring from daytime, Warner Bros. Domestic Television is pitching her incumbent stations on Caroline Rhea, who is probably as experienced a daytime host as you’ll find, given all the test shows she’s done the last several years for various studios.

Not to be outdone, Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television, says he has “the next Phil Donahue” in Rob Nelson.

Whether or not that’s true, Nelson will host a talkshow cleared on Fox owned and operated stations covering 46% of the country in 2002.

Twentieth is also conducting a regional test of “Good Day LA” — a local show produced by Fox O&O KTTV Los Angeles — in St. Louis, Austin, Phoenix and Atlanta. If viewers respond well, the babes ‘n’ news-formatted “Good Day Live” will be rolled out nationally in morning time periods.

The game is on

Syndicators of hourlong talkshows aren’t the only ones benefiting from the shuffling of early fringe in 2002, with three well-branded half-hour gameshows drawing many of their clearances in this daypart.

Based on a format that’s already enjoyed several successful life cycles in syndication, Columbia TriStar Domestic Television’s “Pyramid” is cleared in early fringe in more than 70% of the country.

“It’s the best lineup we’ve ever had,” says exec VP John Weiser.

Hosted by Donny Osmond and sharing the production resources of Col-produced powerhouses “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” “Pyramid” should challenge Buena Vista TV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and NBC Enterprises’ “Weakest Link,” whose syndie launches have been more publicized.

That, however, won’t be easy. Premiering nine months earlier in January, and hosted by George Gray (“Junkyard Wars”), the half-hour version of “Link” will enjoy early-fringe clearances on high-profile network O&Os such as WCBS New York, KNBC Los Angeles and WMAQ Chicago.

“Millionaire” is also benefiting from good clearances, but its fate is a bit more uncertain as no host has yet been announced (though primetime host Regis Philbin is the leading candidate), and ABC execs recently called into question the prospects of the network version that spawned the franchise.

“I think if Buena Vista had been able to launch it this season, it might have had a better shot,” says Chuck Larsen, an industry consultant.

Others in the mix

While a good number of shows are already fully sold into the fall 2002 marketplace, there are more than an equal number still in the presentation-tape stage.

Among the more talked-about projects that will be taken to NATPE are a Buena Vista project starring comedian Wayne Brady and Paramount’s “Life Stories,” a reality/human-interest program produced by Pie Town Prods.

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