Sequel strategy

Gentle twist on tried-and-true formats dominates syndie game

Syndie 2.0.

This year, a number of syndie originals will feature tweaked versions of established formats. With little wiggle room in which to launch product, and distributors already behaving as cautiously as possible (5/2 barter splits, anyone?) these refashioned concepts are a way of intriguing the audience without rocking the boat too much.

“On Air With Ryan Seacrest,” “Ambush Makeover,” and “Pat Croce: Moving In” are among the shows putting a new twist on known commodities, catalyzed more by evolution than by copycatting.

“We’re trying to find a logical way to evolve familiar genres,” says Robb Dalton, programming and production prexy of Twentieth TV. “Put something on that people like but make it fresh and fun.”

First out of the gate is Twentieth’s “Seacrest.” Strip premiered on Jan. 12 as a hybrid of talk, variety and newsmag formats with the “American Idol” host standing center stage.

This combination of elements already has people taking.

Says station rep Bill Carroll, Katz Television VP and director of programming: “There are no guarantees in syndication, but there are certain things reasonable to take a roll of the dice. As Ricki Lake was that voice a decade ago, this could be that voice.”

The trend to blend has trickled down to indie waters as well. Niche distrib Onyx Media Group has developed its own variety/newsmag, “Urban Cafe,” similar in concept to “On Air” but more specifically directed toward an ethnic audience with radio personalities Ralph McDaniels and Roberto Clemente Jr. hosting.

Twentieth is now rolling out “Ambush Makeover” nationally, after a successful test run last year on their O&Os. In each episode, a team of experts surprises a needy subject and entices her to have a makeover then and there.

Further down the pipe, NBC is readying “Gal Pals” from the producers of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” only with a femme focus this time.

Sony’s “Pat Croce” will take advantage of the most successful segment on King World’s “Dr. Phil” — the house call. Half-hour show will focus on motivational speaker Croce settling in with a family to expedite the problem-solving process.

“In a studio, he’d be bouncing off the walls,” says John Weiser, exec VP of Sony Pictures Television, on Croce’s hands-on, on-site approach. “It’s better to let him run free.”

In fact, Weiser hopes that instead of relying on a studio audience, the show will have the audience at home — and a large one at that.

Warner Bros. 100+ station group senior VP Lynn Stepanian believes shows such as “Ambush Makeover” are extensions of another, greater trend — the onslaught of the makeover genre. “Whether it’s a home or a life, it’s all about rehabbing,” she says.

Ironically, the makeover was a concept first conceived on daytime television, only to be seized and perfected by cable. Clear Channel programming VP Dan Stein believes this trend is daytime’s continuing attempt to woo youth and women back from cable — as evident from the yield of previous years, including “Starting Over” and “Life Moments,” targeted at an audience weaned on MTV and Lifetime.

“Cable is certainly influencing people and the shows they bring out on the networks,” Stein says.

Another way of staying risk-averse is bringing personalities back into programming.

While yakkers have long been a daytime staple, the twist this year is that more significant celebrities will bear hosting duties. Up-and-comers are being shunted aside for established names: Tony Danza (Buena Vista), Jane Pauley (NBC Enterprises), and even superstar Jennifer Lopez (Universal) are associated with forthcoming strips.

“We went through a time of emerging personalities that didn’t have a celebrity stamp,” says Carroll with a nod to the “Anandas” and “Tempests” of yesteryear. “They were personalities but not celebrities.”

Buena Vista TV prexy Janice Marinelli knows that a toplining celebrity shortcuts the process.

“In firstrun, it’s hard to promote host X, unless you’re doing the ‘Dr. Phil’ strategy,” she says. “Either you can do that where you home-grow, or go out with a name that people know.”

Marinelli has faith in Danza, long familiar to a TV audience from “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss,” strips still running in syndication in some places. NBC alum Jane Pauley, set to return to the Peacock roost, takes pride in her no-nonsense “plain Jane” ethos, which will allow her to relate to the key women demos.

“What we’ve got is someone well liked by viewers, someone very well known,” says NBC Enterprises prexy Ed Wilson on Pauley’s advantage. “You don’t have to train her to do this. She’s been doing this her entire life.”

Such confidence is receiving mixed result on the buyer’s side.

“The selection of the hosts or anchors is important in historical success,” says an appreciative Deb McDermott, operations exec VP of Young Broadcasting. “They’re doing a better job of selecting the front line.”

A cautious Stepanian adds: “The question now is can they translate to the daytime format?”

Celeb yakkers means filling a studio with eager audience members whipped into a frenzy of energy. As with “Live With Regis & Kelly,” many of the shows will be delivered live to tape. NBC will station “Jane Pauley” at its Gotham 30 Rock headquarters, which also happens to be a major midtown tourist destination. And no set will be as ambitious as the multiple-moving-part studio of “Seacrest,” equipped like a fishbowl at Hollywood & Highland so that nothing escapes the camera’s eye.

“There’s a high-wire act with the spontaneity of doing shows live,” says Carroll. “No one wants to see anyone fall, but they do want to see them balance.”

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