Can numbers lie?

We've all seen the advertisements: So-and-so's syndicated strip is doing gangbusters in such-and-such cities. And the ads, supported by exhaustive research, are speaking the truth in most cases. But often, the ads are plugging shows that are doing nothing much everywhere else.

Many syndicated shows score strongly in at least a few markets, which can be a boon to individual stations that sell time to advertisers based on those local ratings. But, with the shows churning out weak national numbers at the same time, those series' distributors (per barter-split agreement with stations) frequently can't charge advertisers hefty-enough rates to keep paying the shows' production bills.

However, local-market success stories are far from being throwaway nuggets of information. Studios can use this good news as proof that the show has potential for eventual growth, relieving any itch to call it quits on things that haven't caught on yet nationally.

"I remember how Arsenio Hall
started out so much bigger in ethnic markets than elsewhere," says Janeen Bjork (formerly with Millennium Sales & Marketing, now working as an independent station consultant) about a series that ultimately became a hit around the country.

Katz TV's Bill Carroll recalls syndication's most recent phenom, Judge Judy, "whose initial time-slot lineup was patchwork. But based on solid numbers, [it] got some upgrades and, by the third year, looked strong."

Among today's sometime standouts are Warner Bros.-distributed Access Hollywood, which hits 5.0s or 6.0s on NBC O & O stations but regularly posts 2.0-range national performances. Another example, MGM's troubled National Enquirer: Uncovered
(soon to be dropped by the Fox O & Os but looking for new takers), logged a 3.3 rating/10 share on WJBK-TV Detroit during November sweeps, which is three times as high as its usual national rating.

On the freshman front, just among those that haven't been picked up for season two, King World's Curtis Court
earned a 5.2/16 on WRAL-TV Raleigh-Durham, N.C., in November vs. a 1.6 national season-to-date rating through Jan. 14. Similarly, Studios USA's Arrest & Trial
registered a 4.4/6 on KTVK-TV Phoenix vs. a 2.0 national average. And even Paramount's beleaguered Dr. Laura
nabbed a respectable 2.6/10 on WCPO-TV Cincinnati vs. a 1.3 national average.

"It is rare that you find a show, looking over the 200-plus markets, that doesn't work on at least one or two stations," notes Carroll. "The odds are working in your favor that is going to happen."

But underscoring any market muscle is the fact that, "in the end, national numbers are where the real potential profitability for a show comes into play," he adds. "It's rare that the license fee is a studio's only means to make money. The real make-or-break comes from the barter split."

So a mixed performer, like the above or others, including Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus
(2.1/8 on WCMH Columbus, Ohio, vs. a 0.8 national average ) and Sex Wars (4.1/7 on WUSA Washington vs. a 0.7 national average), "can last as long as the syndicator is willing to underwrite the production of the show..It costs the same amount to produce no matter what the ratings are," Carroll explains. "If you are willing to take the loss, then you can keep the show as long as you want."

Reasons vary for a show's selective strength. Access Hollywood, its proponents say, needs to play in the access daypart in order to attract viewers, and at least the NBC stations (having a financial interest in the NBC Studios-produced series) are willing to be accommodating. Currently, Warner Bros. is offering Access Hollwood to stations for discounted prices if the outlets agree to air it between 7 and 8 p.m.

Carroll points out that, in other instances, "if you're on a dominant station in a protected time period, you will do a good number. The show would have to be an unbelievable disaster not to perform well there."

Steve Rosenberg, president of Studios USA Domestic Television, admits he hasn't put his finger on why Arrest & Trial
has wowed viewers on such stations as KTVD Denver (4.0/7 through the third week of January), but he's definitely working on it. "If I could figure out a way to duplicate exactly what we were doing in Denver everyplace,.then I would have one of the highest-rated syndicated shows."

Still Rosenberg is grateful for local success, which gives him legitimate bragging rights for Arrest & Trial and informs his decision on whether to renew the show. Currently, he is waiting for WWOR New York and KCOP Los Angeles to decide about keeping the show next season.

"When you can pull out 10 or 15 tremendous success stories, then what that tells you is that you have a good show," Rosenberg explains. "Does that make you more committed? Absolutely. In deciding whether a show comes back, you look beyond the numbers and also look at the product. As for Arrest & Trial, shame on us if it doesn't go to year two."

So what happens when stations find themselves holding shows that do great for them but not so great for others? There has to be the possibility that a distributor will stop a show's production.

Over at WIVB-TV Buffalo, N.Y., General Manager Lou Verruto notes, "We would love for Curtis Court to continue." But "if you're not cleared in New York or Los Angeles, you aren't running."