Syndie woes grow with fall bows

Disappointing ratings bode ill for next year's new fare

New syndicated TV shows became an endangered species this year, and next year is not looking a whole lot better.

Only three shows bowed in syndication this fall, possibly the smallest number of new September strips in the history of TV syndication.

But none of the three’s Nielsen ratings are making TV stations jump up and down with glee. For Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for media rep firm Katz TV, that lethargy points to a deeper problem.

“Stations are becoming more cautious about ponying up the bucks for daytime projects,” Carroll says, making distributors just as cautious about pouring money into syndie development.

For 2005-06, the new daily show with highest expectations, NBC Universal’s one-hour “Martha,” hosted by Martha Stewart and produced by reality guru Mark Burnett, has proved to be something of a disappointment, averaging a modest 1.7 household rating since its Sept. 12 debut.

Of the two others, “Judge Alex,” from Twentieth TV, is off to a respectable 2.1 household rating during its first four weeks as part of stations’ courtshow blocks; and Warner Bros. Domestic TV’s “Tyra Banks Show,” while averaging only a 1.4 household rating, is doing better proportionately among women 18 to 34 than either “Martha” or “Alex.” Advertisers pay premium rates for young women.

Most stations forked over fairly substantial license fees for “Martha” despite the fact NBC U has cleared it mostly in lower-rated morning time periods. Capitalizing on her headline-making conviction, and imprisonment, for perjury, NBC U got many stations to agree to a guaranteed two-year contract.

“Martha” also came with an unprecedented contract in which Stewart’s company, not NBC U, sold the four minutes of national-advertising time within each hour.

Last year, Jane Pauley and Tony Danza signed rich deals for their syndicated shows, forcing their distributors NBC U and Buena Vista to squeeze as much money from stations as possible to keep the deficits from ballooning out of control.

Pauley’s show flopped, and NBC canceled it, abrogating — to stations’ relief — the second year of two-year deals. Danza’s numbers were borderline, so BV’s second-season renewal looks like a lapse of judgment: Since Sept. 12, the show has fallen off by an average of 8% in households compared with the low numbers for the same period in 2004-05.

Carroll and many of the stations he represents are seeking cheaper major-studio-produced shows that wouldn’t be burdened with the swollen salaries of celebrities.

One example of a departure from the general run of yakkers, gavelers and gamers is “Starting Over,” from NBC U and Bunim-Murray, a one-hour reality soap that places a group of distressed women and licensed therapists into a Los Angeles mansion and monitors their interactions.

“Starting Over,” entering its third year, is averaging only a 1.0 rating since Sept. 12, but it costs so little and is so saturated with lucrative product placements that NBC U could make a strong case for bringing it back for a fourth season, and charging stations a lot less in license fees than for a celeb-hosted talker.

But if a marginal show like “Starting Over” winds up on the air in 2006-07 and “Martha,” “Judge Alex” and “Tyra” settle in at renewal-friendly Nielsens, next season could wind up a repeat of 2005-06.

Only two proposed series for next fall have yielded formal announcements from distributors: NBC U’s “Megan Mullally Show,” a talkshow hosted by the Emmy-winning actress of “Will & Grace,” and King World’s “Rachel Ray Show,” starring the relentlessly energetic personality who hosts four separate series on the Food Network.

Sony Pictures TV has a commitment from the Tribune-owned TV stations for a 2006-07 daily series, but the parties have declined to identify what the show will be.

Scuttlebutt has it that — separate from the Tribune deal — Sony is quietly sounding out stations about a courtshow presided over by Judge Maria Lopez, who started her legal career as a civil-rights attorney. Warner Bros. is pitching Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist, as a “Dr. Phil” wannabe whose show could help troubled people.

And Roger Ailes, the new honcho of the Fox-owned TV stations and of Twentieth TV, is planning some news-and-information shows to follow on the heels of “Geraldo at Large,” the half-hour daily show that kicks off next month on the Fox O&Os and other stations throughout the country.

Despite all this activity, Carroll says, “I’d be surprised if even as many as a half-dozen shows make it on the air next fall,” which historically would be a low number.

And six rookie shows could have a hard time finding open slots on TV stations clenched in the grip of a mindset that says it’s often better to negotiate for the second daily run of an existing series than to buy a new show that could stumble out of the starting gate.

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