Syndication doesn’t get traction on action

Demise of the hourlong melodrama

NEW YORK — The weekend editions of hit syndication originals have all but wiped out the scripted action hours that used to dominate the Saturday schedules.

“E.T. Weekend” and its Saturday companions such as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Access Hollywood” and “Extra” are now dominating the firstrun-syndie landscape on the weekends.

Just six years ago, up to 20 firstrun action-adventure hours were blanketing the weekend schedules of TV stations, many of them, like “Star Trek: Deep Space 9,” “Hercules,” and “Xena: Warrior Princess,” seizing high-profile time periods and harvesting sizable audiences.

By contrast, only one weekend action hour is still churning out original episodes exclusively for syndication: “Gene Rodenberry’s Andromeda,” from Tribune Entertainment.

One obvious explanation for the stunning demise of the hourlong syndie melodrama, says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media, is that “most of them just stank. They were cheaply produced, and they didn’t look good. The audience started turning away from them.”

Unfortunately for the distributors, people were deserting these shows in the U.S. just as the international marketplace “started to become so saturated with them that the prices began falling,” says Chuck Larsen, a TV-syndication expert and president of his own company October Moon.

The syndicated “Baywatch” was grossing $1 million an episode outside the U.S. during its peak in the mid-’90s, Larsen says, and many other hours climbed up into the high six figures around that time.

Today, he says, “most action hours will get a couple of hundred thousand dollars an episode, at best” from international buyers.

Like some U.S. networks, says Rand Stoll, VP of domestic TV sales for Lions Gate Entertainment, foreign broadcasters have fallen in love with reality shows, which are cheaper to produce than scripted series and tend to attract younger viewers, the favorite target of advertisers.

Foreign buyers also continue to erect barriers to shows from outside their countries, hellbent on propping up local production.

The shrinking dollars from overseas ended up dumping a revenue burden on domestic that distributors couldn’t shoulder. Since TV stations in the U.S. don’t pay cash for these shows, the distribs are exclusively dependent on the ad revenue from the seven minutes an hour they carve out for commercial spots.

But with “Andromeda” and “Mutant X” each averaging only a 1.8 household rating season to date (both are down by 10% from 2002-03), the ad revenues will not come close to offsetting the production budget, even a frugal one of $800,000 or so an hour.

Capitalizing on the disappearance of firstrun action shows, more off-net hours have made their way into weekend syndication to help “E.T. Weekend,” “Access Hollywood Weekend” and other firstrun shows take up the slack.

Among the hours, reruns of “The West Wing” are averaging a 2.1 rating season-to-date and those of “ER” and “The Practice” are each pulling in a 2.0. The only firstrun scripted hour beating them is “Stargate SG-1,” but each “Stargate” hour gets a three-month exclusive window on the Sci Fi Channel before migrating to syndication.

The off-net “CSI” makes its weekend-syndie debut this fall, as does “The Twilight Zone” (which stations can run as hours or half-hours). Beyond 2004-05, Twentieth TV sales execs are peddling reruns of “24,” Buena Vista is pitching “Alias,” Warner Bros. is looking for “Smallville” buyers and KingWorld is sounding out the market for “CSI: Miami.”

But when all of these hours end up on the weekend schedules of TV stations, it’s likely that none of them will be able to match the one rerun series that continues to pile up viewers every Saturday and Sunday, averaging a humongous 5.5 rating season-to-date: “Seinfeld.”

No program rates higher in weekend syndication, and at the pace “Seinfeld” is going, that statement that could still be true five years from now.