Desperately seeking a syndie hit

'Rosie' from '96 was last skein to nab high ratings

HOLLYWOOD — Let the spin begin.

The syndie sector has long been derided as the used-car sales biz of the entertainment world, but this fall those who play on this lot are more desperate than ever for a syndie smash.

“We as an industry need a hit,” NBC Enterprises topper Ed Wilson told Variety. “In fact, we as an industry need three or four hits.”

“We all want some shows to stick this year,” adds Lloyd Komesar, senior VP of research for Buena Vista.

Syndicators understandably are tired of hearing that not since the former “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” debuted in June 1996 has a daily, firstrun show in syndication hit out of the box.

What’s more, the task of defining syndie success has become especially sticky.Comparing ratings, for example, for such direct competitors as Disney’s “The Wayne Brady Show” and Warner’s “The Caroline Rhea Show” — both conceived as bearers of “Rosie O’Donnell’s” torch — will be darn near impossible.

That’s because Disney’s slow rollout of “Wayne” means it won’t be on the national household ratings chart. But the widely cleared “Caroline,” which in the top 10 markets is mostly in latenight, will be.

Even criteria for determining whether a show is working on its own have their problems.

NBC’s Wilson says he uses three measurements in determining whether a show is working, all of which are considered pretty standard today.

  • He compares the show’s performance to that of the time period the previous year;

  • the show’s rating and share compared to its lead-in;

  • and whether the show exhibits growth during quarter hours.

The year-to-year comparison is one of the most difficult questions of the season.

As Wilson puts it: “The only thing more difficult this year is what we went against last year.”

Comparing performances this September to those of September 2001 is virtually useless since so much of syndication’s programming was preempted by news coverage related to Sept. 11. October viewership last year continued to be disrupted by news.

Going back two years also is problematic, as the TV landscape has changed dramatically since then.

The lead-in criteria remains a key one, and probably for that reason, it’s one of syndication’s favorite spin zones.

Here if a show appears in a traditionally low-rated slot, distribs have the excuse that viewers aren’t used to tuning in. Even when a show debuts in a good time period, they offer the excuse that the bar is set too high.

And quarter-hour viewership, while an important sign of viewer retention, alone cannot determine a show’s future.

The one series debuting this season that syndie specialists struggle to find any handicaps for is King World/Paramount’s “Dr. Phil,” which premieres Sept. 16.

If anything should work, this show is expected to be it.

With extensive promotion, its “Oprah” pedigree and a historically strong launch line-up, many observers say they expect “Dr. Phil’s” debut ratings to triple those of other new shows.

And while every syndie, of course, wants his show to be the one to break through, every inch of the biz agrees it would be revitalized by seeing something, anything, finally hit again.

“If ‘Dr. Phil’ works, it’s good for everyone,” Wilson says.

Ever-the-salesman, Wilson adds that there also would be industrywide “upside in the success of a show with a little less anticipation,” like, say, NBC’s “John Walsh.”

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