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Can Off-Cable Get Stations On Track?

As cash-strapped stations continue to struggle with ever-present programming needs, syndicators have stepped up their first-time off-cable reality show offerings to the broadcast syndication market. But buyers and sellers alike are taking a thoughtful approach to these new acquisitions and their longer-term implications.

This year has been the toughest in stations' history. Plunging revenue and evaporated profit margins have eliminated cash stations need to purchase programs and maintain license fees. They need to fill time periods with fresh, branded shows at a limited price. Off-cable programs fit the bill, say several syndicators.

Two of them are offering stations unscripted shows off their parent corporations' co-owned cable networks. NBC Universal has cleared Bravo's Real Housewives franchise on stations covering more than 60% of the country, and Twentieth Television has taken National Geographic's The Dog Whisperer out for sale. Nat Geo is a joint venture between Twentieth parent News Corp. and National Geographic.

“What's great with Dog Whisperer and Real Housewives is that they are proven,” says Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth Television. “Women know these TV shows. You would have to go out and spend millions of dollars in marketing, promotions and co-op to get close to the level of awareness that we already have for these shows.”

Debmar-Mercury is offering E!'s long-running True Hollywood Story as a one-hour strip with 500 episodes in the can.

Dog Whisperer, Real Housewives and THS are being sold on an all-barter basis. Twentieth and NBCU will keep 7½ minutes of advertising in Whisperer and Housewives, respectively, and give 7½ minutes to the stations. Debmar's deal for THS calls for stations to keep 9 minutes of ad time, while Debmar sells 5 minutes.

Debmar believes THS will work because the show is well known and each episode offers a closed story arc. However, off-cable gems are not being positioned as a cure-all. “These shows should be considered utility players,” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “They shouldn't be considered long-term answers to station problems.”

Cable properties get very different reactions in a broadcast market than they do on cable, says Dave Morgan, president of Litton Entertainment, who successfully sold stations The Weather Channel's Storm Stories. They have to be matched to stations with care. “Each cable show is specifically manufactured for that cable network,” he says. “Whether or not cable shows will work on broadcast depends on whether the show has the right tone for that station and on how exposed that show has been on the cable network.”

Steven Schiffman, Nat Geo's general manager, is pitching Whisperer's growth on the network as evidence of its widening appeal. “When we debuted the show in 2003, we had 71,000 viewers,” he says. “That increased to 352,000 viewers in the 2005-2006 season, and today we're up to 462,000 viewers. That represents a 31% increase in just three years. From a cumulative perspective, nearly 11 million viewers tune in to Dog Whisperer each week.”

Real Housewives has been a ratings hit for Bravo, particularly among key female demographics, according to Sean O'Boyle, NBC Universal Domestic TV's executive VP and general manager. “The ratings were what convinced us to take the show out,” he says. NBCU also is selling it as a one-year deal so stations can make a short-term commitment.

Still, whether the heat of any of these shows will transfer from cable to TV stations remains a question mark. As a real-life soap opera, Real Housewives may pair well with NBC's daytime fare and attract new viewers. However, fans of the show have likely already watched it on Bravo and know what happened. Serialized drama of any sort—from General Hospital to Desperate Housewives to The Sopranos—rarely repeats well.

It's a calculated risk on the part of NBCU, O'Boyle says: “We think this franchise has the ability to attract new broadcast viewers on top of loyal viewers. And we think it's compatible with daytime soaps, talk shows and court shows.”

Syndicators agree that even if this crop of off-cable fare provides stations a temporary fix, it shouldn't be the model that prevails. Rather, it should serve as a bridge to better times ahead. Stations need timely, original first-run shows like Sony's Dr. Oz and CBS' The Doctors to grow time periods and remain relevant and unique in their local markets long-term.

“Stations need the studios to make legitimate attempts at producing quality first-run programming,” Marcus says. “Stations need studios to try.”

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