Talkers’ Loose Lips Sink Syndie Ships

Whoever said “talk is cheap” obviously never produced a failed talkshow.

With production costs of $12 million, plus marketing, promotion and startup expenses, it’s not uncommon for a syndicator to spend as much as $20 million on a first-year talker.

The long odds for success in the genre have been painfully apparent. The talk field was littered with corpses last season, and few see much hope for the survival of this year’s yak pack.

But syndicators aren’t giving up. Rather than write off their investments, some are now looking to replace their existing failures with new shows during the same season.

By wowing station execs with big names or new “advertiserfriendly” concepts, the programmers are hoping they can hold onto their time periods and avoid competing for slots with an avalanche of new talkers on tap for fall 1996. It’s a costly gamble but a necessary one, if recent history is any indication.

Of the eight new talkshows introduced in fall 1994, only one – Twentieth TV’s “Gordon Elliott” – survived for a second season. And some say that is only because it had two-year deals.

Eight more daytime and latenight syndie replacements came aboard this past September. In a bad omen, Warner Bros, has already told stations that “Carnie Wilson, ” the highest-rated of the lot, will be axed next summer.

Others, including Buena Vista TV’s “Danny Bonaduce” and “Stephanie Miller,” Twentieth TV’s “Gabrielle Carteris,” Rysher’s “George & Alana” and Turner Program Services’ “Lauren Hutton and…” are all in ratings limbo.

Their October demo results were lousy. And based on initial November sweeps metered market household numbers, there isn’t much reason to think things will improve.

In the case of “Stephanie Miller,” the Disney syndie unit could pull the plug as early as next week. The extremely low-rated latenight comedy/variety show has already lost an estimated $10 million-$12 million. BVTV sank an additional $3 million into 40 practice shows.

If any of the shows survive, it will probably have more to do with being produced by broadcasters willing to keep them on the air than stellar ratings. The few lucky programs fitting into the former category include New World’s “Mark Walberg, ” Tribune’s “Charles Perez” and Chris-Craft’s “Richard Bey.”

The one exception could be Columbia TriStar’s “Tempestt Bledsoe,” which has done well in New York – the nation’s largest market – and experienced the slightest drop off from its lead-in of any of the new talkers. But like all the new shows in the 1-2 rating range, the former “Cosby Show” kid would still have to be considered a longshot for renewal.

“None of those new shows justify survival, ” a station rep says.

The low ratings and the political backlash against talkshow content has station execs wishing they could immediately yank the yakkers off the air. Unfortunately, they say, there isn’t much with which to replace them.

That’s why Warner Bros, is looking to have stations blow out “Carnie” for a new series with comedienne and actress Rosie O’Donnell in an effort to hold on to its time periods.

And Twentieth is said to be considering a similar move in which “Donna Willis, M.D., ” a prospective firstrun talkshow for fall ‘ 96, could go into production early and move into the slots now occupied by “Gabrielle.”

The ‘ Willis” show will feature the “Today” show medical correspondent discussing mental and physical health issues. But station and syndication sources say Willis is no O’Donnell, and Twentieth could lack the clout to make the switch this season.

$6 million for Rosie

WB invested heavily in O’Donnell, with some suggesting she was paid $6 million upfront for the talkshow. There may be other perks that could boost the total value of the deal.

Add to that O’Donnell’s backend profit participation, as well as the cost of getting the show launched, and syndicators say “Rosie” would need to reach a national rating in the 5.3-5.5 range to break even.

That would be quite a feat, considering the highest-rated talker, “Oprah Winfrey, ” is averaging a 7.8 mark season-to-date and the nearest runner-up is WB’s “Jenny Jones” at a 4.6. The only hit to emerge in the last three seasons, Col’s “Ricki Lake,” is at a 4.5.

The program that O’Donnell will replace, “Carnie,” earned a flimsy 2 national rating season-to-date. Stations are not willing to stick with it, however, because it drops far off its lead-in and year-ago time period averages.

WB is asking stations to commit to “Rosie” from June 1996 through September 1997, but holding on to “Carnie” time periods could prove difficult in some major markets such as second-ranked Los Angeles. “Carnie” currently airs with anemic ratings at 2 p.m. on KCBS-T V, leading into the low-rated CBS-Group W magazine “Day & Date” at 3.

‘ Geraldo’ exiled

To make room for the two shows, KCBS this fall sent Tribune’s “Geraldo” packing to the wee hours of the morning, where it is still earning higher ratings than “Carnie.”

The Eye web O& O and Tribune had agreed that “Geraldo” would replace whichever program disappeared first. Since Westinghouse now owns CBS, however, the chances of “Day & Date” going away before “Carnie” appear slim.

Still, there is widespread interest in O’Donnell. “From the reaction we’re getting from a lot of stations, they are intrigued by her, ” says Jack Fentress, VP-director of programming at the rep firm Petry National TV. “Without a pilot or anything, stations seem to be responding positively to her.”

And there are rumors that Roseanne may consider doing a talkshow for King World if her network series is canceled. That would be in addition to her involvement in “Planet Hollywood Squares.” But some question whether Roseanne would be up to the long hours involved in such an undertaking.

Stations seem to be sitting back and waiting for the November books to come in. They expect more programs to be introduced all the up to the National Assn. of Television Program Executives confab in late January, and don’t appear to be in a rush to commit to anything.

That could set the stage for an interesting program buying convention in Las Vegas, where the high rollers won’t just be at the tables.

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