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Kicking into first-run action

It wasn't too long ago that Tribune Entertainment Company was something of a talk-show factory in the syndication business. Joan Rivers, Dennis Miller, and Geraldo Rivera all had their talk shows distributed by Tribune Entertainment, a subsidiary of Tribune Broadcasting Co., which owns and operates 22 TV stations across the country.

But the focus has changed in recent years at Hollywood-based Tribune Entertainment, where traditional talk shows have become a thing of the past and the weekend action-hour is much more in vogue.

Over the last four years, Tribune has launched four new action hours in first-run syndication, starting with Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict
and Nightman
in the fall of 1997. In 1999, Tribune launched Beastmaster: The Legend Continues
and this season Kevin Sorbo is leading Andromeda
to the top of the Nielsen charts. And for fall 2001, Tribune is rolling out Mutant X, a live-action series that hails from the successful Marvel comic book strip and recent feature film The X-Men.

With the exception of Nightman, which was canceled after two seasons, Tribune has enjoyed more success in the weekend game than any other domestic distributor in recent years, including Studios USA, which has dropped both Hercules
and Xena.

"A couple of years ago, we took a look at the market and determined that we wanted to become the dominant player in the action-hour arena," says Tribune Entertainment President and CEO Dick Askin. "Because we had a unique distribution platform, which was the strong station group, we decided to really dive right into that. And next fall, we will have four hours of our own in syndication."

Tribune Entertainment's General Sales Manager Steve Mulderrig says the idea to get into the action-hour business made a lot of sense and potential dollars, too.

"Dick's strategy was a smart one," says Mulderrig. "We didn't have a library here, we didn't have any off-network products, at least back then and by getting into the action-hour genre it allowed us to create and build a library we didn't have before. And to have a library in this industry is vital these days."

But don't rule Tribune Entertainment out of the first-run strip business.

The studio, which canceled Richard Simmons' Dream Maker
shortly after launching it in the fall of 1999, is going to continue taking shots in the weekday daytime arena, Askin says. For fall 2001, Tribune is distributing a new talk/relationship series titled Talk or Walk
and the studio is in development on other potential daytime shows with an eye on the future, long term.

"It has always been our goal to be a player on the first-run strip front," he says. "A successful strip can be extremely lucrative and that's something that we have made a priority this year and we are really glad that we will be bringing another one to the marketplace with Talk or Walk."

Askin says that he wants to launch one new strip a year and, hopefully, land at least three on the air over the upcoming five years.

Tribune Entertainment was first established in 1982, with talk shows from Rivers, Rivera and Miller leading the charge. The studio has also distributed a number of other shows through the years, including the ongoing weekend series Soul Train
and U.S. Farm Report

Today, Tribune Entertainment enjoys the luxury of a built-in distribution platform from its co-owned station-group, which now covers more than 35% of the U.S. The studio didn't always take advantage of this luxury in the past. Shows coming from the syndication side at Tribune Entertainment didn't necessarily get cleared on the companies'TV stations until recently.

"From what I'm told, there were basically two different companies working with two different agendas," says Askin, who joined Tribune in 1996, after running Samuel Goldwyn Television.

But that changed in the early 1990s when Dennis FitzSimons took over the Tribune station group and vowed to bring the two sides together. The studio and the station group have worked together on nearly every project since and are even chummier these days.

"They are coming in at the conceptual stage," says Askin of Tribune Broadcasting executives. "For the daytime genre this past year, we presented them with six concepts and moved forward to three. We ended up getting an order for one show, Talk or Walk. So that relationship continues to grow."

Tribune Entertainment is also trying its hand in the off-network business, currently selling the syndication rights to NBC weekend series City Guys. And Askin says he has been in talks with various Hollywood studios about selling their network series into syndication, using Tribune's built-in sales force. "We actually are always in the market for any form of distribution that we think can be lucrative," Askin adds.