Syndie in waiting game

Available shows might find few outlets at NATPE

Syndicators and stations are starting to sound optimistic about the coming economic recovery, but that won’t be much help for fall.

For the first time in memory, no new firstrun shows will be sold to stations for cash, unless Sony manages to get the Harpo-produced “The Nate Berkus Show” off the ground. Sony officially began promoting the show in January, but the move has station and syndication sources scratching their heads.

As hard as you want to work to make a show like that happen, the fundamentals just aren’t there,” says one syndication executive.

With Warner Bros.’ The Bonnie Hunt Show” and likely NBC Universal’s “Deal or No Deal” going away, only NBC’s station group has significant holes in its schedule, but the group hasn’t shown a willingness to pay cash for anything recently. The other four groups with stations in major markets that could launch the show — Fox, Tribune, ABC and CBS — are full. And no one thinks Sony or Harpo is willing to launch ”Nate” for barter only.

Thus far, the only new firstrun show from a major studio to be cleared is CBS Television Distribution’s “Swift Justice With Nancy Grace.” Warner Bros. had to pull its offering, “MomLogic,” based on its website, out of the running when Fox chose instead to renew Debmar-Mercury’s “The Wendy Williams Show” for two more years and NBC passed.

Many syndicators had turned to inexpensive nonfiction off-cable fare to fill stations’ programming gaps, but only NBC Universal’s “Real Housewives” franchise has been well received, with clearances in more than 60% of the country. Twentieth’s off-Nat Geo “Dog Whisperer With Cesar Milan” failed to launch after the syndicator found that stations didn’t think the show would flow well in their daytime talk and court blocks.

Meanwhile, Debmar-Mercury and MGM both expect “E! True Hollywood Story” and “Cash Cab” to end up on stations in syndication, either as strips or on the weekends.

Thus far this selling season, only courtshows are getting any traction. Besides “Swift Justice,” Litton’s Dave Morgan says the company’s revived “Judge Karen’s Court” will launch in the fall and “Street Court” will get renewed for season two. Entertainment Studios’ “America’s Court With Judge Ross” is still in the offing for stations, although that show doesn’t need a national clearance to launch because it also has a run on Entertainment Studios’ HD cable network. Still pending is word on Trifecta’s “Judge Heck.”

Without cash in the market, most syndicators haven’t been willing to take the financial risk to produce talkshows, which are far more expensive than court.

Nate Berkus” is a sort of hybrid, and whether it will launch this fall remains to be seen. Program Partners is offering stations Canadian talker “Steven and Chris” off of the CBC in an all-barter deal, but it plays more like an off-cable show from a financial perspective.

We’re in a unique position with this show,” says Program Partners’ Josh Raphaelson. “It has a proven track record, and it’s already on the air successfully in Canada.”

Two talkers — Warner Bros.’ “Bonnie Hunt” and “The Tyra Show” — both end production at the end of this television season, leaving room in talk down the road.

The next great opportunity for talk — and syndication in general — comes next year as syndicators start prepping for Oprah Winfrey’s departure in fall 2011. Besides creating an opportunity for a new show, the “Oprah” farewell is expected to bring cash back to the market.

When that ‘Oprah’ money comes back into the marketplace, stations may want to reinvest that money,” says John Bryan, MGM’s executive vice president of broadcast strategy.

Rich retransmission consent deals like the one Fox just cut with Time Warner should also create a cash influx, which syndicators hope stations will reinvest in new programming.

I think stations are experi-encing a combination of a steadily recovering ad market and pending retransmission consent deals,” says Ira Bern-stein, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “Those deals represent a half-billion dollars that these broadcast networks didn’t have before, and they’ll be getting it every year, year in, year out.”

Adds Bernstein’s co-prexy, Mort Marcus: “The real question is: Are they going to put that money in their pockets or are they going to spend it on programming? They should take a chunk of it and wildly spend on programming so that when these deals come back around in three years their programming is something every distributor absolutely has to have.”

In light of that, look for several syndicators to test some new shows this summer, although they say they aren’t yet ready to reveal details.

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