Fewer syndie strips coming to market each year

A correction was made to this article at 3:28 p.m.

The hoopla of NATPE is one thing; the moolah is quite another. It’s what takes place behind the scenes at the three-day trade show, which opens Tuesday, that really matters, not the glad-handing and back-slapping on the convention floor.

The reason fewer syndie strips come to the market each year is that it has become so hard to make money off them. If they get launched, most syndie shows fizzle. The past decade has seen a half-dozen strips debut each fall, but few last more than a season or two.

Joining the ranks of money-spinners “Oprah,” “ET” and “Judge Judy” is no easy task. (Disney, for example, is sitting out this round, trying to nurse its Tony Danza talker back to health before tackling another project.)

Gabbers and gavelers make up the majority of new firstrun strip contenders this go-round, and all come to market with key clearances already in hand. Even the latest to enter the fray, Tribune’s repackaged “American Idol” reruns, have racked up 55% of the country in clearances in just three weeks on the road.

The good news is there are signs that the local ad market has picked up and that there are enough timeslots opening up to make these syndicators salivate. The challenge for them is to keep production costs in check (as well as the egos of their stars) and do smart deals with the best stations possible in the best timeslots available — and then hope folks show up to watch.

“What’s changed,” said Katz Television VP-director of programming Bill Carroll, “is that syndicators are adapting more smartly to the marketplace than, say, a decade ago. Their projects are more geared to station needs, rather than just flung at the dart board.”

As for the buoyancy at the confab, NATPE co-chair and Sony TV Distribution topper John Weiser said there are “a lot of midsize and smaller markets still to be cleared for one project or another. From a cost-efficiency point of view, NATPE is a great opportunity for a syndicator.”

Each of the seven projects from major players has pretty much declared itself, in syndie speak, “a firm go,” but several still have clearances in midsize and small markets to tie up.

Warner Bros. will hold a news conference today at its NATPE suite to announce it has struck a deal with a number of Fox-owned TV stations to carry a talkshow starring Dr. Phil wannabe Keith Ablow. The Fox O&Os also have renewed Warners’ “The Tyra Banks Show” for a second year. Ablow and Banks will speak at the press briefing.

Among the other rookie gabbers, Sony Pictures TV is banking on relationship counselor Greg Behrendt; NBC Universal is counting on its “Will & Grace” star Megan Mullally to make the transfer from over-the-top character actress to empathetic talkshow host; and King World is betting peppery Food Network fave Rachael Ray will come up with a winning recipe.

Hoping to emulate the successful launch of last year’s “Judge Alex,” two Hispanic-targeted contenders — Twentieth’s “Cristina’s Court” and Sony’s “Judge Maria Lopez” — are entering the courtroom show arena.

The two oddball projects are Twentieth’s rotating trio of telenovelas called “Desire” and Tribune’s off-net “Idol” hybrid, both of which still have a lot of clearances to lock up.

At least one company is already sure its financial numbers add up even before hitting the Vegas slots.

Roger King, CEO of King World and CBS Enterprises, said that based on the license fees from stations and the advertising revenue he’s projecting, his company will make a profit on Ray’s show from day one.

King declined to go into detail, but with an expected budget of $600,000 a week for 36 weeks of original shows, Ray’s production cost comes out to $21.6 million for the year. Add another $6 million in promotion, marketing and other nonproduction expenses for a total cost of $27.6 million.

In the first of the show’s two revenue streams, Ray should clear a total of $400,000 a week in license fees from stations, times 52 weeks, which equals $20.8 million for the year.

As for the second stream, advertising, one estimate is that Ray’s show will fetch about $5,000 for each 30-second spot, based on a Nielsen guarantee of about a 1.8 rating.

At seven spots in each hour, that’s $35,000 a day and $175,000 for the five-day week. Multiplied by 52 weeks, Ray would pull in $9.1 million in ad revenues for the first year.

Add the $20.8 million in license fees to the $9.1 million from Madison Avenue for a total of $29.9 million, which puts King World in the black to the tune of about $2.3 million.

If the Ray show doesn’t reach the rating guarantee, however, KW would have to turn over some of the spots to advertisers as make-goods, slicing into the show’s profits.

Another King World series, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” probably made similar breakeven calculations when it began in syndication in 1986. Twenty years later, Winfrey has become the wealthiest woman in the history of showbiz.

And that’s why the major studios will continue to churn out new syndicated series despite a failure rate so massive that the studios’ treasurers keep an unlimited supply of Prozac in their medicine cabinets.

As for who is showing up for the hoopla on the convention floor, organizers are optimistic the numbers are picking up.

On the eve of the confab, total registration was 5%-10% ahead of last year’s, meaning total attendance should exceed 8,000.

Some 350 companies are exhibiting — 80% on the Mandalay Bay floor and 20% in hotel suites — and program buyers from 50 countries are represented, as well as a respectable number of general managers from local U.S. stations.

The contingent from abroad is expected to be fairly healthy as well, repping almost 30% of total attendees.

NATPE organizers have bulked up on panels and workshops, with some 50 different sessions skedded over the three-day event.

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