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Making the first moves

Not your typical syndication studio, Universal Worldwide Television does not create single-topic talk shows or weekly action series-two of the more popular first-run genres-for the U.S. market. But even with contractual obligations to steer away from such formats-stemming from its 1998 deal with USA Networks-the distributor still believes it is right on track for success.

Universal has sparked a new syndication trend with sophomore relationship strip Blind Date:
its studio rivals are launching at least three variations on the format next fall. And Universal is positioned for another hit with its 2001 launch of The Fifth Wheel, from the same producers as Blind Date.

Logically speaking, Universal may feel limited by not being able to tap into ideas from the large talk or action arenas. Under a complex agreement, Universal handed over domestic sales of first-run series, including talkers Jerry Springer
and Sally
and action-show Xena: Warrior Princess
to Diller-owned syndicator, Studios USA Domestic Television. Now, Universal oversees and solely benefits from those shows' international distribution.

"As part of that partnership strategy, we're not clogging the pipeline with offerings that look like USA offerings. Our guns are silent in the action-adventure genre. We're not doing domestic talk shows," says Universal Worldwide Television President Ned Nalle. "What we're doing is going after differentiated programming."

In April 1999, Universal absorbed Polygram's syndication division, a result of Seagram purchasing the company's TV and music holdings and USA grabbing its film properties.

To make a splash with its new structure, Universal chose to launch Polygram's Blind Date
in the fall of 1999. The studio believes that was a smart move, and is not exactly pining away for a return to the pre-USA days.

"When we take a look at the current landscape, it says that the marketplace has enough talk shows. Every ratings book shows falling performances," Nalle notes. "I don't think it would be in Universal's interests to dedicate resources in trying to pile more on."

A better strategy for Universal is to identify new opportunities, "finding the best possible producers to create a program that viewers can find valuable to them. And be the first at it," Nalle explains, pointing out that Blind Date
introduced the reality-dating hybrid concept, a format which struck a chord with viewers. "[With Blind Date], we now have the advantage of being the first mover."

And it seems wise for Universal to stick with the relationship format, which, so far, is a successful genre, different from talk or action.

Matt Cooperstein, Universal Worldwide TV's programming chief and previous head of Polygram TV, says that. in terms of churning out more relationship shows, "that's something we'd definitely look at because it is a genre that we revived."

However, "you don't want to cannibalize yourself, and I wouldn't want to do anything that would hurt Blind Date
or The Fifth Wheel."

Yet Universal has had luck in pushing a young genre forward, coming out in the early-mid 1990s with back-to-back smashes, the now-canceled Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
and Xena: The Warrior Princess
(no more new episodes after this season).

"The first mover [into the action-hour business] was Hercules
and everyone asked, 'why are they doing that, it'll never work. 'Well, it worked," Nalle stresses. "It spoke to an unserved audience and we immediately came back, asked the same producers (Renegade 83's David Garfinkle, Jay Renfroe and Thomas Klein) to do something else and that was Xena. There's a not so subtle parallel here in The Fifth Wheel
and Blind Date."

After surviving and apparently prospering from its corporate transition, Universal plans to keep increasing its offerings.

"You won't find us being the fifth or sixth mover into a genre. We want to be the people who break new ground," Cooperstein explains. "But I would love to invigorate daytime with a product that would be different from what other people are doing-and I have ideas for that."

Soon Universal could be due for another company shift, under its new parent company, France-based Vivendi, which finalized its purchase of Seagram this past December.

At press time, Vivendi hadn't yet revealed its goals for its Universal subsidiary, "but I don't think the merger would have been done if people at Seagram didn't think it would yield greater resources toward operating our businesses. They thought it would make us more potent in the marketplace. So I'm optimistic that we'll have more firepower," says Nalle.