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Breaking Tradition

The syndication business is often criticized for its lack of variety, but this fall, new genre-changing concepts could take root in the business. Warner Bros.' TMZ—covering all the news and gossip within Hollywood's so-called “Thirty-Mile Zone”—is this season's most highly anticipated launch, with both Warner Bros.' executives and outside observers hoping to find that a highly successful Website can launch a similarly successful TV show. TMZ premieres Sept. 10.

“I think it's going to be really interesting to find out whether people who are hooked into TMZ on the Internet can be convinced to watch TMZ on TV and vice versa,” says Garnett Losak, vice president, director of programming for Petry Media Corp. “That will provide us with more information.”, launched in November 2005, quickly has grown into a Web site staple, averaging 7.6 million unique visitors per month, according to ComScore Media Metrix in November 2006.

“Incubating potential shows on the Web is definitely a strategy for us in the future,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions.

It's not the first time a studio has tried to turn a Website into a TV show. Last winter, NBC Universal turned women's Website iVillage, which it acquired in March 2006, into an interactive television show. NBC has tried iVillage Live on 10 NBC-owned stations, but the show's ratings have never been strong. In fact, iVillage Live is getting a makeover—complete with new title and new hosts—and then returning to the air on September 17 with new episodes. It's currently in repeats.

Observers also are paying close attention to Program Partners' Merv Griffin's Crosswords, named after the show's creator who passed away this month. The show premieres Sept. 10, with the NBC-owned stations as a launch group.

“Merv had been thinking about this for 15 years. He was a big crossword puzzle fan and always wanted to make one for TV but couldn't figure out how to do it,” says Josh Raphaelson, principal, Program Partners. “Within the past year, he woke up one day and said 'I've got it. We won't worry about the big puzzle until the end. We'll just dissect the puzzle one piece at a time.'”

Proof of Performance

Some observers think the show's performance will signal whether other first-run game shows will succeed in syndication. For years, talent agents have been saying that the game genre was ready to make a big comeback, and new and retooled games finally are ready for sale.

For the past year, primetime games such as NBC's Deal or No Deal, Fox's Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and CBS' Power of 10 have been notching solid ratings in primetime, signaling to studios that the game show are in the midst of full-throttle comeback.

Besides Crosswords, Twentieth Television is premiering FremantleMedia's Temptation on Sept. 10, a remake of Sale of the Century, which includes an interactive shopping element.

Noting the genre's network success, “game is economical to produce and the genre has a very steady, very loyal, targeted TV audience, which is the 25-to-54-year-old female,” says Bob Cook, Twentieth Television's president/COO. “We look at game as the sleeping giant.”

Temptation taps into two things that daytime audiences like: pop culture, and all the questions we ask in the show have something to do with pop culture, and shopping,” says Eugene Young, chief creative officer of FremantleMedia North America.

Both Crosswords and Temptation are going against the current trend in that neither game had a first-run on prime time, which usually makes shows easier to promote once they hit daytime. That's why observers expect big things from the fall 2008 premiere of NBC Universal's Deal or No Deal, emceed by primetime host Howie Mandel.

Finally, the off-net premiere of NBC Universal's Law & Order: Criminal Intent, cleared in more than 95% of the country, may indicate whether a popular primetime drama can succeed as an off-net syndicated strip. They haven't in the past

“If Law & Order: Criminal Intent is successful as a Monday-through-Friday strip, it could change the model of [one-hour procedurals] being first sold to cable,” says Bill Carroll, VP, director of programming, Katz Television Group.

Besides those trend-setting models, NBC Universal is offering The Steve Wilkos Show, a spin-off of the studio's highly successful Jerry Springer show, which is entering its 17th season in syndication. When the former cop's show premieres Sept. 10, NBC U expects Wilkos and his brand of straight talk to fit well into stations' block of Jerry and Maury, celebrating a decade on the air.

“We had tried things with Steve as long as seven years ago,” says Tracie Wilson, VP of programming and development for NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution. “We've been sprinkling him in with the intent of spinning him off. And when Jerry did Dancing With the Stars, Steve filled in quite a bit so we had 50-plus shows in the can before we ever even premiered.”

In a more traditional move, Sony is launching Judge David Young, though it's the only new court show to enter a crowded genre. It starts Sept. 10.

“When you look at the court genre in general, it has the best success rate and it stays on the longest,” says John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television.

“Out of the last 12 shows that have been introduced in court, 11 have succeeded,” he says. “We will know the market is oversaturated when we see an erosion of ratings and viewers.”

Syndication is likely to see much more change in coming years, as studios and independents try to figure out the best way to develop shows and sell them into stations' few remaining time slots.

“What we're seeing is shows that were developed in non-traditional ways making it to syndication. Whether it's Tyler Perry starting on cable with originals of House of Payne, or TMZ incubating on the Web, just coming up with smart idea, putting it on tape and then springing it on everyone no longer is enough,” says Weiser. “This is just the beginning of a lot more non-traditional development.”