Filling schedules

There may be an economic cloud over syndication, but that rumble isn't thunder. It's a flurry of activity as syndicators race to fill the batch of time slots that are opening up—and do so before heavyweights Weakest Link, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
and Pyramid can scoop up the best ones.

Look at Big Ticket Television, back in the saddle after losing Caroline, with a prospective 2002 talk show for star pop singer Vitamin C. Then there's Twentieth Television with a half dozen projects in development, including a talk series branded by African-American fashion magazine Essence and vehicles for KTTV-TV anchor Jillian Barberie, who will be paired with former Laker player John Salley for a late-night project; former MTV veejay Kennedy; and former Fox News talent Rob Nelson. Even Warner Bros., which will probably be without The Rosie O'Donnell Show after 2002, is courting O'Donnell to star in a new spin on Let's Make a Deal.

There is the downside, of course. The upfront ad market is still slow. First-run hits, which would brighten syndication's outlook, are rare: Most rookie strips, even the few renewed ones, pulled below-2.0-level Nielsen numbers during the May sweeps. And Dick Wolf's Arrest & Trial, arguably a good bet, was canceled last week because of weak ratings.

But, with many strips expected to vanish in the coming season—most notably Rosie O'Donnell but also such declining efforts as The Jenny Jones Show (many stations' contracts with the show are said to be up after 2001)—stations will have to pick up some new shows, soft ad market or not.

"There is a sense there will be a lot of openings in fall 2002," says Blair TV's Garnett Losak. "We're certainly looking at a situation where a lot of contracts are up, a lot of shows are hanging by threads."

Katz TV's Bill Carroll sees five or six hours open in most markets in 2002: "That's an awful lot of time periods."

Among those on the endangered list, considering unweighted metered-market Nielsen results for May, are returning freshmen Judge Hatchett (pulling a 1.8 rating/6 share, down 10% from the year-ago time-period average), Power of Attorney (1.7/ 6, down 15%), and To Tell the Truth (1.3/5, down 13%). Also, Tribune Broadcasting hasn't renewed rookie Street Smarts in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. And besides Jenny (with a 2.1 season average through May, down 9% from this time last year), there is Sally (2.4, down 33%), also thought to be on shaky ground.

Ironically, given these cellar-dwelling numbers, "there was more doom and gloom six months ago then there is now," says a source close to the Vitamin C project, which insiders say is a youth-skewing, hour-long chat series with an MTV feel. Most likely, the show title will use the real name—Colleen Fitzpatrick—of the singer, who's best-known for the top-40 hit "Graduation."

"There are time periods open," says Young Broadcasting Executive Vice President Deborah McDermott. "We're just very interested" in what's out there. So far, she has heard spiels on Buena Vista's Millionaire, NBC Enterprises' Weakest Link, Columbia TriStar's Pyramid and Twentieth's Texas Justice, a regional effort that's expected to roll out nationally.