Sales activity subdued due to strike

The firstrun syndication business has largely been immune to the turmoil in the TV biz spurred by the 3-month-old writers strike. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be party time in Las Vegas this week as the syndicators, station brass, international buyers, advertising execs and digital media entrepreneurs gather for the annual NATPE confab.

The National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention has for years been a much more subdued and businesslike affair than in the days of yore (think mid-1980s to mid-’90s), when firstrun talkshows and action hours minted money for distribs and stations. This year, the sales activity promises to be subdued with only five new strips heading to market. The two most high-profile entrants, Warner Bros.’ “The Bonnie Hunt Show” and CBS TV Distribution’s “The Doctors,” already have the vast majority of their station clearances locked down.

The drop in the volume of programming offered at the NATPE bazaar reflects the overall consolidation in the industry and the low success rate for new daytime skeins during the past decade. This year, station execs also are jittery about the ailing national economy and its impact on local ad spending. Shares of broadcast-dominant companies like Sinclair Broadcast Group, Hearst-Argyle Television, Gannett Corp. and Belo Corp. have generally been in a slump for the past few years, indicative of Wall Street’s concern about local broadcast TV’s long-term growth prospects.

Like every other established media biz, the challenge for local stations is to maintain their dominant positions amid an onslaught of new competition from many quarters. It’s no accident that virtually every session on the NATPE conference agenda involves some variation of the “harnessing the digital future” theme.

Local network affils are sure to remain “giants in a land of midgets” for the foreseeable future, in the words of one veteran exec, but the steady erosion of audience share and competition for ad dollars has taken a toll on profit margins.

Of course, like the Big Four networks, stations still have the advantage of being able to shell out for top-tier programming. That’s where the firstrun biz comes in.

“It’s a challenging marketplace these days for local broadcasters,” said Ken Werner, prexy of Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution. “We believe that TV stations more than ever need high-quality firstrun programming to distinguish themselves in their markets. They need reasons for viewers to come to them every day. And they need a marketing partner who’s willing to spend some money on shows and campaigns that will break through.”

Warner is placing a big bet on multihyphenate Hunt as a contender to grow into that most valuable franchise for stations — a daytime/afternoon appointment show that can drive viewers into local news and primetime programming.

Hunt’s show is expected to be a blend of talk, comedy and variety. Warner s keeping mostly mum about the format for now. Skein has been widely cleared on NBC O&O stations and other Big Three affils.

CBS’ “The Doctors” is a spinoff of its “Dr. Phil” yakker. The medical-themed talkshow will feature a group of doctors known to “Dr. Phil” fans offering advice and info on a range of medical issues.

NBC Universal TV Distribution is hawking a syndie half-hour version of the Peacock’s primetime gameshow “Deal or No Deal,” fronted by Howie Mandel.

Lionsgate’s syndie arm, Debmar-Mercury, has a gameshow derived from boardgame Trivial Pursuit that has cleared 60% of U.S. TV households to date. “Trivial Pursuit: America Plays” will allow viewers to submit questions to contestants and give those at home a chance to win coin as well.

Sony Pictures TV is angling to bring a fresh face to the tried and true court genre. “Judge Karen” is hosted by Miami native Karen Mills-Francis, who promises to dispense “tough love” advice to those who run afoul of the law.

Fox’s Twentieth TV also is said to be close to greenlighting a talker hosted by actor-comedian Steve Harvey. An announcement from the distrib this week could add some urgency to the confab for station buyers. NATPE opens today at the Mandalay Bay Resort with a one-day sesh on mobile entertainment; the exhibition floor will be open for biz Tuesday-Thursday.

In addition to the selling, buying, pitching and schmoozing that defines the NATPE ritual, prominent speakers lined up for the 45th edition of the gathering include NBC U prexy and CEO Jeff Zucker, on Tuesday; Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO of ad behemoth Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide, on Wednesday; and FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz on Thursday.

Also skedded for this evening is NATPE’s fifth annual Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards. This year’s honorees are former NBC U chief Bob Wright, CBS Paramount Television Entertainment Group prexy Nancy Tellem, Warner Bros. TV prez Peter Roth, and Mark Itkin, the William Morris Agency’s syndie biz stalwart and co-head of worldwide TV.

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