Ratings highest since 1996-97

NEW YORK – More people are watching syndicated TV shows this season than at any other time since 1996-97.

That buoyant analysis comes directly from the November Nielsen ratings, said Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for the Petry Media Group. “I can’t remember a year,” she said, “when so many returning syndicated shows improved the ratings of their time periods over the previous year.”

Losak will be spreading the good cheer of a successful season in both firstrun and off-network syndication to her TV-station clients in New Orleans during the NATPE convention this week.

One reason for the upbeat syndie numbers is what she calls the ” ‘Dr. Phil’ halo,” citing her conviction that “one major hit has brought attention to an entire schedule of programs.”

King World’s “Dr. Phil” is harvesting the best ratings for a rookie series since the premiere of Rosie O’Donnell’s talkshow in the summer of 1996. Losak compares the effect of “Dr. Phil” on syndication to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which propelled ABC to No. 1 in primetime for a season before the show ran out of gas, and to CBS’ “Survivor,” which continues to be one of the engines of the Eye’s improved young-adult ratings in primetime.

Another reason for syndication’s banner year: Overall TV viewing is at its highest level in four years during both daytime (9 a.m.-3 p.m.) and early fringe (3-5 p.m.). Some of those viewers are sampling cable nets, but enough are gravitating to syndication to pump up the Nielsen numbers.

Losak doesn’t do as much handicapping of proposed strips for 2003-04 as Bill Carroll, her counterpart at Katz Television, where he serves as VP and director of programming.

In a presentation to their TV-station clients, Carroll and his programming staff have good things to say about Warner Bros.-Telepictures’ “Sharon Osbourne” and Warner Bros. Domestic’s “Ellen DeGeneres.” But Katz’s Ruth Lee Leaycraft notes that the Big Three affiliates are the best places for “Ellen,” whereas “Sharon” seems better suited to Fox, WB and UPN affils.

Oprah successor?

Losak says the runaway success of “Dr. Phil” may have delivered an early answer to one of TV syndication’s biggest areas of speculation: Who will succeed “Oprah” when Winfrey finally calls it quits in 2005. King World reported last week that it has renewed “Dr. Phil” in 60% of the U.S. through the 2005-06 season for humongous license fees.

The one other candidate who could inherit some of the “Oprah” timeslots if her show takes off next fall, Losak says, is Ellen DeGeneres, whose show got a vote of confidence earlier this month when Warners lined up the NBC-owned stations to carry the series in 2003-04.

DeGeneres’ one potential albatross, Losak says, is her lesbianism. “Does Ellen have baggage in Middle America,” Losak asks, “that will cause daytime audiences to reject her?”

‘Sharon’ skews younger

Although Sharon Osbourne’s talkshow is also in solid shape for next fall, ignited by a pickup from the Tribune-owned stations, Losak says Osbourne will appeal more to a younger audience than Winfrey’s 25- to 54-year-old core aud. If Osbourne succeeds, the time periods she eventually inherits will be those of Ricki Lake, whose ratings have softened during the last few years, Losak says.

She added that although Buena Vista TV is seeking to clear “Wayne Brady” throughout the entire country for 2003-04 instead of just the limited distribution (on ABC-owned stations) it’s seen this season, the show’s ratings aren’t that promising. The Brady show “has not posted the October-to-November increases we expect to see in new programs,” Losak said. “Wayne will have to turn it around by February if we’re to feel confident in his success for year two.”

Leaycraft is more bullish on “Brady,” but she recommends that stations not run it directly opposite another Buena Vista strip, veteran morning talkshow “Live With Regis & Kelly.” Leaycraft also likes King World’s “Living It Up! With Ali & Jack,” another proposed morning talkshow that looks like a sure go for the fall, but she issues the same warning: Don’t schedule it head-to-head against “Regis & Kelly.”

Syndie sitcom gains

The ratings of sitcom reruns in November appear to have justified the big bucks that stations have had to lay out for them. Losak says that every one of the top-five-rated sitcoms gained in the Nielsens among adults 18-49 year to year except for “Seinfeld,” which is down only 4%. And three of the four gainers are up by double digits in the demo: “Everybody Loves Raymond” (up 16%), “The Simpsons” (15%) and “King of the Hill” (22%). The fifth, “Friends,” is up only 3%, but it harvests higher ratings overall in adults 18-49 than any other sitcom in syndication.

Of the three most notable rookie off-net sitcoms, “That ’70s Show” wound up a solid fifth in the demo, “Will & Grace” sixth and “Dharma & Greg” 13th. Even in 13th place, Losak says, “Dharma” is doing better than most experts predicted.

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