Development slows as talkshows soak up time periods

NEW YORK — Where have all the new shows gone?

TV stations looking to pick up fresh product for next fall on the eve of the NATPE convention are faced with an almost bare cupboard, the likes of which they haven’t seen in decades.

“The development process for new syndicated TV shows is beyond broke,” says Bill Butler, head of programming for the 58 TV stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting. “The studios don’t listen to what the stations need because they’re all wrapped up in which hot talent is being pitched by which hot talent agent.”

Studio development has yielded some successful talkshow personalities in the last few years, such as Dr. Phil McGraw, Ellen DeGeneres, Martha Stewart (in her return after a stretch in the slammer), Tyra Banks and Rachael Ray.

But the renewal of all of these shows, some for multiple years, has soaked up lots of time periods, making producer/distributors hesitant to spend up to $12 million developing a show that might get rejected because stations have run out of slots to accommodate it.

That problem of time-period scarcity is particularly onerous this year for two reasons. The first is that NBC is preparing to add a fourth hour to “The Today Show,” seizing that daily 60-minute timeslot back from stations that would normally fill it with syndicated shows.

The second reason has to do with the uncertain status of the 26 Tribune-owned TV stations — which include high-visibility outlets in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The Trib group is not aggressively seeking to commit to new programs; its parent company is up for sale and not interested in adding program expenses that could cause investment bankers to head for the door.

Phil Oldham, prexy of indie distributor TargetVision, says that rampant consolidation of the syndie biz has led to a half-dozen media giants controlling the flow of TV shows. For their programs to get launched, these majors have to land at least one of the five gatekeepers, i.e., the big-market TV-station groups owned by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and Tribune.

And these five, Oldham says, are getting fed “programs from their inhouse distributors,” referring to Disney/ABC, Paramount/CBS, Twentieth TV/Fox and Universal/NBC. Tribune has a programming partnership with Sony Pictures TV, which doesn’t own any stations.

The NBC stations are carrying a show called “iVillage Live,” which is an NBC U production originating from U’s Orlando theme park. (NBC U also owns the iVillage Web site.) If the series gets an audience on the NBC O&Os, NBC U will sell it station by station to the rest of the country, harvesting all of the license fees and barter revenues instead of funneling it to a competitor like Warner Bros. Domestic TV, which has sold “Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to many of the NBC-owned stations.

Bob Cook, prexy-chief operating officer of Twentieth TV, says the studios are skittish about financing new syndie shows for another reason: “It’s getting more and more difficult to make a business out of selling a show for daytime when you’ll end up with a 1 rating,” which usually means a freshman series will flunk out before its sophomore year.

“The cost of production for daytime is growing,” Cook continues, “but the competition for viewers is fragmented among cable TV, the Internet, video on mobile phones and interactive gaming.”

But since Twentieth’s main goal is to produce shows for its sister Fox-owned stations, Cook has given the go-ahead to “The Morning Show,” which begins on the Fox stations later this month and is angling to get clearances nationwide by next fall. Cook says he’s pitching the chemistry of co-anchors Mike Jerrick and Juliet Huddy. “It’s meant to be chatty and lifestyle-oriented,” Cook adds.

However, Oldham says that unless TV stations have the rights to an expensive hit daytime series like “Live With Regis & Kelly,” “they don’t want to pay cash for any shows they play before 4 p.m.”

What happens when cash disappears from the equation is that the station gives the distributor half of the 14 minutes of ad time to sell within each hourlong episode, in what the industry calls a barter deal.

But the “harsh reality” of these no-cash deals, says Oldham, is that the station loses all incentive to promote the series or favor it with a high-rated lead-in. The reason: If the show becomes a Nielsen success, the station gets burned by handing over so much valuable commercial time to an outside supplier.

So don’t be surprised if 2007 becomes the year of the woe-is-me NATPE: While TV stations whine about no interesting new shows to choose from, most TV syndicators abstain from producing a rookie daytime series out of fear that, with rare exceptions, the program will stumble out of the starting gate in September, limping its way to early cancellation.

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