Slow buildup could mean surprises on the floor

At this week’s National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention, syndie oldies “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” are fixed on air for yet another six years, “Baywatch” is bouncing back as an all-barter strip, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” is the hottest off-net rerun — and Canada is counted as a hotbed of creativity.

What’s happening here?

For one thing, the firstrun syndie biz, as defined by the Hollywood majors, is in a funk, with just a handful of projects coming to market.

Talk is too expensive, the court genre is chock-a-block, newsmags are tricky to get right. As for games, if kingpin salesman Roger King thought better of launching two new contenders, “Combination Lock” and “Joker’s Wild,” one might ask what hope there is for anyone else.

But precisely because so few projects gained traction in the run-up to NATPE, key station deals might crystalize in the heady Vegas atmosphere.

Among the big syndie distribs, the only “firm go” projects for NATPE include court contenders from Sony (“Judge David Young”) and Warner (“Celebrity Jury”) and Twentieth TV chatshow “The Morning Show With Mike and Juliet” and gameshow “Temptation.”

To some extent, syndication is a victim of its own success. Perennials like “Wheel,” “Jeopardy,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “Ellen” and “Judge Judy” keep getting renewed in longer and longer arcs, leaving few slots open for newcomers.

The syndie biz is also being rattled by the same unsettling digital-driven forces that are altering the face — and the economics — of television everywhere. Thus, the likely buzz word at NATPE is “alternative content,” as in, “Find me something cheap for my station from somewhere else. Think outside the box.”

And so it is likely to be a very different vibe in Vegas. Last year, the out-of-the-blue merger of the WB and UPN netlets electrified the tradeshow as 8,000 participants got jolted with the news on their BlackBerrys on the first morning.

Barring a sale of the Tribune station group — like the CW stunner, a deal that could have major impact on the syndie biz — this year’s event is unlikely to spark any such flurry. Rather, circumstance is inviting every facet of the biz to be more innovative.

So too the organizers of NATPE. With few firstrun strips from the majors to galvanize the floor, the annual sales bazaar is redoubling efforts to be inclusive of the wider, digital world.

“We’ve become more of a TV tradeshow than strictly a domestic syndication show,” says NATPE prexy-CEO Rick Feldman. “And in that respect there’s good news: People are watching more television, in more places, from more devices. And more content is being created than ever before.”

Not that domestic syndication is dead, but it is an increasingly smaller proportion of the business that’s being written at these events. (At least until the next Oprah walks through the door.)

“Here’s the deal,” explains producers rep Chuck Larson. “Tribune right now is dead in the water, and corporate execs there aren’t making a lot of decisions. The Chris Craft station group went away several years ago. Now it’s only Fox (as a major buyer), and they never overpay. Add to that the fact that ratings in syndication continue to go down and costs to produce keep going up.”

Stagnant biz

Larson runs his own consultancy called October Moon, and says he’s never seen the traditional syndie biz so stymied.

Feldman points out how tricky it has become to launch shows because of station duopolies in the top three markets: New York, L.A. and Chicago. “Getting a clearance in those three markets is extremely difficult right now with so many major time periods locked up,” he says.

Against this backdrop, it’s hard to justify all but the most convincing of projects.

Still, they tried. Distribs pitched games, gabbers and assorted other genres to station G.M.s back in late fall. Among the possibilities were a trio of talkers from Telepictures/Warner (with, variously, Paul McKenna, Maria Salazar and Christy Haubegger) but none has gone forward. Similar sallies in other genres were undertaken by other syndicators.

Neither Disney, King World/ Paramount nor NBC U seems to have a firstrun project to tout in Vegas; Warner, under its new syndie topper Ken Werner, will have “Celebrity Jury” and perhaps “TMZ,” a celebrity newsmag fashioned from the eponymous Web site. Twentieth has announced two entries, Sony one. That’s about it among the major suppliers — unless there’s a last-minute surprise.

Last year, there were seven new firstrun rivals in the marketplace — court contenders “Judge Maria Lopez” from Sony and “Cristina’s Court” from Fox, gabbers “The Greg Behrendt Show” (Sony), “The Dr. Keith Ablow Show” (Fox), “The Megan Mullally Show” (NBC U), “The Tyra Banks Show” (Warners) and “Rachael Ray” (King World). “Mullally” has been axed, while “Ablow” and “Behrendt” are hanging on by thin threads. The main success story this season has been “Ray.”

Enter the indies

Beyond the majors and their strip biz, a number of indies are hoping to take advantage of the lull in the firstrun fray.

Litton Distribution, for example, is bringing back the biceps-and-bikinis classic “Baywatch,” whose 160 episodes will be stripped in all-barter deals. The company has already cleared most of the top-20 markets.

“Firstrun is challenged right now, but what we have is a brand everyone knows. Every episode is like a little self-contained escapist movie,” says Litton prexy-CEO Dave Morgan.

Other indies on the convention floor have tried to take advantage of the majors’ decision a few years ago to work out of the adjacent Mandalay Bay hotel rather than from the convention floor.

“The ‘suite-est’ sound we ever heard,” quips distrib Fred Haber, “is the sound of elevators jamming when the Hollywood majors moved their offices to the hotel suites in Vegas four years ago.” Haber adds that conventiongoers eventually made their way back to the floor, and as a result smaller companies like his own eponymous banner took advantage of the situation.

“The best market for our company,” Haber opines, “is whatever convention has the most buyers. I think NATPE is likely to be a good one: The 20% of the buyers who represent 80% of the business are likely to be there.”

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