The action at this year’s NATPE confab made it clear that there’s an independence movement afoot in the syndie TV biz. A handful of indie distribs generated as much, if not more, action during the confab as the majors.
Sales news out of the majors on Wednesday included NBC Universal Domestic TV’s confirmation that “The Steve Wilkos Show” is good to go for a second season in more than 85% of the country. And CBS Paramount Intl. Distribution inked a deal with Canada’s Global Television for its upcoming daytime strip “The Doctors.”
But the real newsmaker of the NATPE confab was Program Partners, a nearly 3-year-old entity that got its start selling off-net packages of Canuck series like “Da Vinci’s Inquest.” L.A.-based company used NATPE to signal to the biz its expansion plans for the coming year. Program Partners company confirmed Wednesday that it has cleared its new gaveler strip, “Family Court,” for a fall debut on stations including Fox-owned outlets in New York and Los Angeles.
On Tuesday Program Partners unveiled plans for a new yakker hosted by Marie Osmond for fall ’09, and it also touted the renewal of its gameshow strip “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords” for a sophomore season.
The growth of upstarts such as Program Partners; Lionsgate-owned Debmar-Mercury, the oldest and largest of the new wave of indie distribs; Radar Entertainment; and Trifecta Entertainment amounts to a lesson in macroeconomics 101: When the dominant players in a market pull back on supply for reasons other than demand (e.g., consolidation and changing corporate priorities), opportunities arise for entrepreneurs quick enough to spot the openings.
“The playing field is clearly leveling out,” said Ritch Colbert, co-founder of Program Partners. “Broadcasters clearly have programming needs. We’ve worked hard to identify them and bring out high-quality programming.”
Radar Entertainment confirmed during the confab that its fledgling court strip “Jury Duty” will be back for a sophomore year.
Debmar-Mercury has received a lot of attention in the biz during the past four years. The company, headed by syndie biz vets Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein, got its start when Marcus acquired the off-network rights to Comedy Central’s “South Park” after the cabler’s sibling syndie distrib within Viacom passed on the show.
“South Park” has been a solid off-net player for broadcast stations, which put Debmar on the map with TV stations and with producers who were also in the market for an indie distrib. Included in Debmar-Mercury’s major focus at NATPE this year was selling the strip rights to “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
Perry, the entrepreneurial multihyphenate, worked with Debmar to craft an unusual rollout campaign for the comedy series that involved test runs on a handful of stations prior to its national launch last year on TBS and syndie run starting this fall.
Debmar this month launched an eight-week test run in six markets, including Houston and Phoenix, of the nightly live comedy-variety show that comic Tom Green has produced for more than a year as a webcast. Company is also planning a test run in Gotham later this year for a talkshow hosted by Wendy Williams.
On the flip side, Debmar is mounting a traditional national launch for gameshow strip “Trivial Pursuit: America Plays” in partnership with Hasbro. Company already has gameshow strip “Family Feud” on the air.
Debmar has the luxury of being opportunistic and experimental with its new shows in part because it is does not have the overhead or the volume-servicing demands that the syndie units of major studios face, noted Marcus, who headed Disney’s Buena Vista Television in the 1990s.
Slow rollouts “are a great way to introduce new shows for stations,” Marcus said. “They get to see how a show might perform, and they get to really touch and feel what the show is, instead of asking them to make a huge commitment based on a five-minute tape.”
Trifecta Entertainment, headed by former MGM TV prexy Hank Cohen, recently picked up distribution of “American Idol Rewind,” the off-network package of Fox’s mega-hit, after Tribune Co. opted to shutter most of its syndie operation. Trifecta’s eclectic slate ranges from Jack Hanna animal show “Into the Wild” to a syndie package of Ultimate Fighting Championship.
These aren’t the sorts of programs that the major studios would bother with, but they are the building blocks for a startup, Cohen said.
“These are the kinds of shows that don’t necessarily make sense for a studio to do, but they have created a nice business for us,” he said.
An established indie that had a big presence on the NATPE exhibition floor, as usual, was Carsey-Werner Co. Although the company ended active production in 2004, domestic and international sales of Carsey-Werner’s library of sitcoms — including “The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne,” “Third Rock From the Sun” and “That ’70s Show” remain strong.
In fact, program licensing coin generating during the past three years has exceeded the value that investment bankers put on the company when partners Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey were considering buyout offers for it, according to Jim Kraus, prexy of Carsey-Werner Domestic Distribution. And because Carsey-Werner has a solid distribution infrastructure, the company is actively seeking projects from outside producers to distribute, Kraus said.