Syndicated business gets healthy

CBS's 'Doctors' one of fall's promising series

The once-battered syndication business may be on the road to recovery.

Peak battering time came about a year ago when John Nogawski, president of CBS TV Distribution, was going nuts trying to figure out why his company should continue to develop new syndicated shows.

The pricetag for the first year’s production of a syndie talkshow with a high-salaried host had ballooned to about $24 million ($700,000 a week times 34 weeks of originals), but TV stations were not cooperating: They balked at paying an adequate license fee, and too often they wanted to ditch the show in an out-of-the-way time period when too few people were watching TV.

With one exception (Warner Bros. Domestic TV’s half-hour “TMZ” magazine show), the crop of rookie firstrun series that stumbled out of the gate in September 2007 was so unimpressive that the industry labeled it one of the worst in history.

What a difference a year makes. Stations, slammed by the fallout from last year’s series cancellations and desperate for replacement programming, have begun rushing back to distributors for what looks to be a strong crop of new skeins.

The syndie biz is nowhere near a complete turnaround but, says Nagowski, “I’m bullish on where the season is heading. Stations are asking for shows, time periods are becoming available and we’re able to start cutting deals.”

And for the seven strips kicking off in syndication this month (including “House of Payne,” which TBS has played on its primetime schedule since the summer of 2007), Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, which represents hundreds of TV stations, says, “All of the new shows are credible and have chalked up lots of decent time periods.”

Carroll is referring to CBS TV’s “The Doctors,” NBC Universal’s “Deal or No Deal,” Warner Bros.’ “The Bonnie Hunt Show,” Debmar-Mercury’s “Trivial Pursuit,” Sony Pictures TV’s “Judge Karen” and Program Partners’ “Family Court with Judge Penny.” And Disney/ABC is producing (with Sam Raimi’s company) and distributing “Legend of the Seeker,” the first fantasy/sci-fi hour to enter TV syndication since the early ’90s. “Seeker” bows Nov. 1.

And distributors have already started maneuvering to get deals for the 2009-10 season, led by Sony’s “Dr. Mehmet Oz,” a cardiologist and TV personality (and a frequent guest on “Oprah”) who’ll host an hourlong talkshow.

Sony is not commenting on any deals, but “Oz” has signed a number of stations, as has Program Partners for “The Marie Osmond Show,” which is also slated to begin next fall. One certain go for 2009 is Debmar-Mercury’s “The Wendy Williams Show,” which scored well enough in four test markets over six weeks this summer that the Fox-owned stations signed up for a full year. “Wendy” could kick off next July to get a jump on rival first-year shows premiering in September.

Twentieth TV is also close to announcing a syndicated half-hour version of Fox’s primetime series “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” hosted by Jeff Foxworthy. The Fox stations are likely candidates for “Fifth Grader” in the top markets, and at least half of the Sinclair stations that carry “Deal or No Deal” will jump at the chance to buy “Fifth Grader” as a companion piece.

In development are talkshows featuring personalities including Leah Remini (“King of Queens”), Valerie Bertinelli, Paula Deen (the Food Network chef) and Carlos Watson (former CNN commentator).

All of this activity prompts Mitch Burg, president of the Syndicated Network TV Assn., to boast that syndication is growing faster than broadcast or cable TV. Burg points to TNS figures that show national advertising on syndicated shows has jumped by 10% for the first half of the year; forecasts put the full year’s total at a record $4.4 billion.

Unfortunately, the health of national-ad sales doesn’t carry over to local spot, which is suffering from what Sean Compton, senior VP of programming for Tribune Broadcasting, calls a “drying up” of business from local car dealers and wireless providers, among other advertisers.

Tribune is looking to save money, Compton says, by spilling local-news programs into more time periods on key stations including its WGN flagship in Chicago and other outlets such as KSWB San Diego, KPLR St. Louis and KMYQ Seattle.