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Money & models

Syndicators are already throwing the daytime dice

Playing the slots takes on a whole new meaning this week as new firstrun syndie projects jostle for the attention of station buyers at the three-day NATPE jamboree in Vegas.

Though few in number — there were 11 in 2002, only a half-dozen this go-round — current strip projects run the gamut: from financial adviser Suze Orman to Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers to supermodel Tyra Banks, the firstrun domestic strips on offer at NATPE rep a gallimaufry of styles and personalities.

A healthy number of station program buyers, including most key general managers, will hit the Mandalay Bay exhibition floor to assess these firstrun hopefuls as well as a handful of offnet and off-cable shows. Latest to declare is HBO, which is bringing its monster mob saga “The Sopranos” to market in hopes of closing a basic cable deal.

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There are fewer clearances for most of the firstrun contenders than there usually are at this time — and nobody actually announces that any failing show will be canceled — so expect more actual dealmaking than in recent years.

Those that really have to work hard are Warners and Sony, which are each pitching a firstrun strip in an environment with fewer and fewer major station groups to hit on. (The big groups are all owned by rival congloms.)

Warners is placing its firstrun bets on supermodel Banks, while Sony is fielding Quivers.

Without a sister station group under their conglom umbrellas, Warners and Sony actually have to go out and “sell” theirs strips from the ground up, starting with a high-profile “launch” station group.

Warners has proved successful in this pursuit in the last decade with Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres. Sony managed the trick with Ricki Lake and is aiming Quivers at similar young auds in daytime.

Says Sony Pictures TV distribution prexy John Weiser: “The resonance of her personal hard-knocks story and the experience she brings from 23 years working with Howard Stern make Robin instantly bankable. Several studios, in fact, went after her, and we’re fortunate to have won out.”

Weiser says the show will feature multiple topics and be taped daily rather than “gang shot” (five shows filmed in a day) to guarantee immediacy.

Still, the only obvious time periods that Warners and Sony can target are the “Larry Elder” slots on CBS in the morning, the “Home Delivery” time slots on Tribune, or Fox stations in markets where that group has a duopoly.

The other syndie contenders should have an easier time in that they come to market with their launch groups in place.

“I believe more buying will actually take place at NATPE,” says Twentieth TV prexy Bob Cook. He points to the fact that the development season was not robust, with Paramount, Disney and King World all opting to sit out this round.

The lock that stalwarts “Oprah” and “Dr. Phil,” “ET” and “Access Hollywood,” “Judge Judy” and “Joe Brown,” and “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” have on the syndie biz and the sorry performance of recent newcomers might have discouraged a number of distributors from bringing out new projects this go-round.

Still, U.S. stations aren’t likely to jump at the first thing they see given that only one out of eight firstrun projects from last year are likely to return for a second season.

Only Paramount’s “ET” companion “The Insider” boasted healthy enough ratings to be assured of a return berth. Others, such as Jane Pauley and Tony Danza gabbers, are still iffy.

The relentless enthusiasm that syndie salesmen exude and the hoopla that goes on at NATPE belie the fact that this part of the media biz has a 95% failure rate. That being said, because the field is so narrow, all the newcomers on parade feel their chances of a firm go are strong.

Twentieth is the top supplier, bringing three projects to Sin City — a revamped “Current Affair,” exec produced by veteran Peter Brennan with sports commentator Tim Green as host; a court show contender in Cuban-American Judge Alex Ferrer; and the aforementioned Orman, who will dispense her no-nonsense money advice to financially strapped housewives.

“Current Affair” looks to be the only new entry in the newsmag category, while Fox’s court contender will be up against established competition like “Judge Judy” and “Joe Brown.”

As for Orman, Cook and his team describe her as “the Dr. Phil of finance.”

“She’ll be a strong play: There’s an incredible appetite out there for sound, sensible money advice. Suze has enormous experience and an interesting knack of dealing with everyday people,” Cook points out.

Meanwhile, Universal is fielding a celebrity-based talkshow with postprison Martha Stewart, as made over by reality kingpin Mark Burnett. So far the show has cleared the majority of the NBC O&Os for daytime slots, the obvious launch pad for the conglom’s projects.

“With this show we’re going back to core Martha Stewart — but with a more exciting, spontaneous delivery thanks to the unique talents of Mark Burnett,” says NBC U syndie topper Barry Wallach.

Like his counterparts, Wallach says the dearth of new product should translate into healthy business for the best of the new strips and for key returning shows.

As for the offnet biz, laffers are becoming fewer and farther between, thanks to so many primetime slots devoted to reality shows. Thus, it’s stalwarts such as “Raymond” “Friends,” “Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” that continue, in their successive cycles, to outperform more recent half-hours that have come on stream in syndication.

Of more recent vintage, “Malcolm in the Middle” performs reasonably well in rerun, followed closely by “Will & Grace” and “Frasier.”

It’s tricky business guesstimating which current network sitcom might break out once it hits the syndie market. Among those getting high marks and building buzz for September 2005 are “My Wife and Kids” and, given the dearth in network offerings, cable options “Sex and the City” and “South Park.”

The only laffer the rep firm Katz gives a “qualified recommendation” to for the 2006 season, for example, is Disney’s “According to Jim,” because of its respectable male appeal. For 2007, the rep firm is holding its tongue, though it is tentatively leaning toward a thumbs up for the Charlie Sheen-Jon Cryer starrer “Two and a Half Men.”

On the weekend front, stations may have a number of holes to fill in the next couple of years as action hours like “Mutant X” and “Andromeda” run their course.

Not surprisingly, the top picks (and probably priciest replacements) will likely be off-net dramas such as Fox’s “24” and King World’s “CSI: Miami.” The Keifer Sutherland real-time drama recently announced it had cleared 85% of the country.