Real estate scarce for skeins

With an abundance of shows for sale, available time periods are proving elusive

Syndicated programming is back. Big-time.

On the eve of the National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention, at least three events point up the return of a robust TV series marketplace:

  • Seven rookie strips are clearing enough stations to make them shoo-ins for a September launch in firstrun syndication;

  • Warner Bros. is touting sitcom “Two and a Half Men” as a potential A-list half-hour rerun (the first since “Everybody Loves Raymond” six years ago); and

  • Tribune has ignited 11th-hour sparks with its surprise pickup of off-network rights to “American Idol.”

    Chuck Larsen, a TV syndication consultant who’s president of Los Angeles-based distributor October Moon, contrasts all of this activity to last year’s pre-NATPE doldrums, when “no stations seemed to want to buy anything, and only three fresh strips got off the ground.”

“Now, for the first time in years,” Larsen says, “stations have lots of different kinds of shows to choose from.”

The hosts of the four talkshows on tap for the fall are a varied lot, from Rachael Ray’s accent on cooking and Megan Mullally’s focus on comedy/variety to Greg Behrendt’s tongue-in-cheek relationship advice and Dr. Keith Ablow’s psychological tips as a road-company version of Dr. Phil.

The three other fall series premieres are “Desire,” an American translation of the popular Latino telenovela, and a pair of courtshows presided over by Hispanic women: “Cristina’s Court” and “Judge Maria Lopez.”

All of the strips that made their debut last September — “Judge Alex,” “The Martha Stewart Show” and “The Tyra Banks Show” — will be back for a second year, which means there will be plenty of jockeying for potentially scarce time periods.

But, as an indication of just how robust the market is, King World has already cleared “Rachael Ray” in 85% of the country, including top ABC O&Os in New York and Philly. And six of the seven new strips are getting cash license fees from TV stations, in addition to the 30-second spots the shows are holding back within each episode.

The seven newcomers also are drawing lots to see which ones can seize the real estate to be vacated by two existing shows grinding inexorably toward cancellation due to subpar ratings: Buena Vista’s “Tony Danza Show” and NBC U’s “Starting Over.” (The distributors of Danza and “Starting Over” say they’ve made no decisions yet on the shows’ fates.)

Other time periods will open up “as stations stop double- and triple-running” many of their daily syndicated shows, according to Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth TV.

Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for the rep firm Petry, says many of the new firstrun strips “will end up going into time periods that stations had traditionally reserved for off-net programming,” citing the Sinclair and Viacom station groups as examples.

Many off-net laffers are candidates for replacement by firstrun shows because they’re beginning to show ratings wear-and-tear.

Ruth Lee Leaycroft, VP of Continental TV Sales, part of the Katz TV rep firm, cites eight sitcoms due to end their current cycles in 2006 or 2007 as unlikely to get many renewals: “Frasier,” “Girlfriends,” “Drew Carey,” “The Parkers,” “Just Shoot Me,” “Becker,” “Yes, Dear” and “Home Improvement.”

Five other returning midrange sitcoms that have “suffered significant losses” in the Nielsens and are subject to downgrading, Leaycroft continues, are “That ’70s Show,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Will & Grace,” “Steve Harvey” and “King of the Hill.”

And after seven years in syndication, “Friends,” a former Nielsen powerhouse, is plagued by “significant erosion” of viewership, which “moves it closer to second-tier status,” she says.

Despite the unusually wide variety of new strips, Bob Cohen, a syndie veteran and head of August Media, says the independent distributor is basically shut out of the process. “Consolidation within the ranks of distributors and station groups,” says Cohen, “means that the business gets more and more predictable.”

In Cohen’s view, distribs and station groups “make phone calls to themselves to sell programs, Twentieth to the Fox stations, NBC U to the NBC stations and Disney’s Buena Vista to the Disney/ABC stations.”

Cook acknowledges Twentieth’s “first priority is to take care of its family,” meaning the Fox stations, which have bought the two strips Twentieth has developed for September: “Desire” and “Cristina’s Court.” The Fox stations also carry all of Twentieth’s bellwether syndicated shows, such as “Divorce Court,” “Judge Alex” and “Geraldo at Large.”

And NBC-owned stations have bought NBC U’s “Megan Mullally Show,” just as they sprang for another NBC U strip, “The Martha Stewart Show,” at this time last fall (and the failed “Jane Pauley Show” two years ago).

But, in a departure from the synergy lockstep, Viacom’s King World sold Rachael Ray’s show not to the CBS-owned stations, another Viacom division, but to two of ABC’s O&O behemoths: WABC New York and WPVI Philadelphia. In the process, these two stations mortally wounded their sibling BV’s “Danza” show.

And the two major-studio TV arms that don’t own TV stations, Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures TV, got their new shows launched for the fall by working out programming deals with two of the most powerful TV station groups.

Warners has sold the Ablow show to many of the Fox-owned stations along with a second season of “Tyra Banks”; Sony has sold the Behrendt gabber to the Tribune stations.

Behrendt’s is the first series embedded in a partnership agreement that calls for Sony to come up with a new syndie strip for the Tribune O&Os every year.

What’s fueling all of this sales commotion, says Losak, is “the spillover from the fact that 2006 is an Olympics year and an election year.”

This flow of ad money “means that stations are anticipating they’ll have cash in hand to buy more programming,” she says. The depressed ad marketplace early in 2005 made the stations wary about opening their checkbooks, particularly for unproven shows.

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