Buyers wary of firstrun syndication

Stations tired of taking on risks of new shows

Finding fresh hits in firstrun TV syndication is making people in the business crazy.

The last big syndie success, CBS Television Distribution’s “Dr. Phil,” premiered more than five years ago — and it had the huge advantage of a long incubation for Dr. Phil McGraw on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where he developed an enthusiastic following.

So the advent of another annual NATPE convention tends to get the industry focused on all of TV syndication’s problems. John Nogawski, president and chief operating officer of CBS TV Distribution, speaks for a number of syndie execs when he says, “Maybe the biggest dilemma is that stations are unwilling to pay for new shows headed for daytime time periods.”

Stations are not being willfully contentious; they’re just tired of taking risks on shows that never find an audience in the daytime and end up disappearing after one dismal season. The failure rate of new syndie shows is astronomical. And as many as a dozen new show ideas each year don’t even go to pilot when stations say no dice to cash demands.

But there’s a catch-22 for the rookie shows that do manage to chalk up license fees when stations perceive some element of potential mass appeal. By ponying up cash, the station has to give these shows better time periods, usually in late afternoon, when more people are available to watch TV. But those timeslots have a major downside: They slap the newcomers up against such syndie powerhouses as “Oprah,” “Judge Judy” and “Dr. Phil.”

“New shows will go into early fringe timeslots (traditionally, 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays) and come out DOA,” Nogawski says.

Good time periods on high-rated stations are also at a premium because distributors “insist on multiple-year renewals of successful shows,” says Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz TV (which represents hundreds of TV stations).

Carroll adds that there’s another, more obvious reason why fewer and fewer new syndie shows enter the marketplace these days: consolidation. The number of distributors has been winnowed down to the syndie divisions of the six major studios and a few fringe players, including MGM, Debmar-Mercury and Program Partners.

“If you go back 10 to 15 years, a dozen new shows would get on the stations’ schedule for the fall,” he says. Last year, only six strips got on the air, and only “TMZ,” from Warner Bros. Domestic TV, is pulling enough viewers to get the attention of major advertisers.

The buying side has also become more compressed. For a new show to get on the air, it has to engineer a deal with one of five station-group gatekeepers: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and Tribune. Each of the five owns TV stations in N.Y., L.A. and Chicago, a clearance-must for new series.

Despite all of these hurdles, Mitch Burg, president of the Syndicated Network TV Assn. (the advertising/marketing arm of the syndie biz), says there’s a lot to like as the industry prepares for another NATPE convention. Burg cites six new strips that are picking up gatekeeper clearances for 2008-09.

Three of the six are one-hour talkshows: Warner Bros. TV’s “The Bonnie Hunt Show,” CBS TV’s “The Doctors” and Twentieth TV’s all-but-certain “The Steve Harvey Show.” The three others are half-hours that many station buyers choose from to play back-to-back in a 60-minute timeslot: NBC Universal Domestic’s syndie version of “Deal or No Deal,” Sony Pictures’ rookie TV judge “Karen Mills” and Debmar-Mercury’s “Trivial Pursuit: America Plays.”

Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth TV, says he’s bullish about the off-network sitcom, which has shown a revival so far this season, with solid numbers being racked up by Warner Bros.’ “Two and a Half Men” and Twentieth TV’s “Family Guy.” Both “Men” and “Guy” began their syndie runs last September.

The Fox stations have bought reruns of “The Office” from NBC Universal for fall 2009. In addition, the Fox stations have made an offer for repeats of Twentieth TV’s “My Name Is Earl,” also for fall ’09, but Cook is trying to get the Tribune group to come up with a bid, hoping to create an auction that would bump up the license fee.

Another sitcom, “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” from Debmar-Mercury, kicks off in syndication next fall after making its debut on TBS last June for a 15-month exclusive window. “Payne” has performed well on TBS, and many of the station buyers, led by Fox and Sinclair outlets, can’t wait to get their hands on it.

But Burg, while encouraged by the new series and the new lease on life for off-net sitcoms, says what’s really making syndication a multibillion-dollar business every year is “the strength of our brands with viewers.”

And by brands, he means living, breathing ones — everybody from Oprah, Dr. Phil and Maury Povich to Pat Sajak (“Wheel of Fortune”) Alex Trebek (“Jeopardy”) and Meredith Vieira (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”).