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NATPEs missing persons

Last year at this time we had Dr. Laura, a year before that there was Martin Short, and a year before that it was Roseanne. And this year, leading the march to NATPE 2001.?

News of many syndicators' development projects has leaked out-most recently, Twentieth Television's Big Diet, a game strip that is worth somebody's weight loss in gold, and a makeover series for Telepictures produced by Cher-but no syndicator has officially declared it has a show ready for sale at NATPE, just four months away.

Studios USA just named Mark Lipinski (former senior producer on The View) to executive-produce its talk project headlined by QVC talent Kathy Levine, suggesting it is ramping up for NATPE.

"But I haven't been shown anything on anything," says Katz TV's Bill Carroll, who normally gets sneak peeks at studio's biggest NATPE prospects. "I don't know if I'd characterize that as troubling, but you're always concerned when you don't have things to point to as potentials."

Other sources have mentioned King World's Ananda Lewis project as one to watch, with a presentation tape already in the hands of FOX O & O Senior Vice President of Programming Frank Cicha and CBS Station Group Executive Vice President of Programming John Moczulski. Neither could be reached for comment.

One syndication player suggests that King World sees Lewis (currently an MTV veejay) as an "Oprah for the 18-34 demographic."

But the fact remains, the buzz is.that there is no buzz.

Says Steve Wohl, head syndication agent at International Creative Management, "It's kind of been an uneventful year, hasn't it?"

One factor: A handful of fall 2000's syndicated efforts launch in October, escaping Olympic competition but also delaying the point when studios know which shows should get prepped for whatever series need to be replaced.

"Both stations and distributors are more cautious [in giving the thumbs up on projects] than they've been in the past. We've had years of replacing disappointing or failing shows with shows that turn out to be even more disappointing or bigger failures," says Janeen Bjork, vice president and director of programming at Millennium Sales & Marketing. "As a rule, we lose ground every time we make a change."

Viewers didn't bite at either Martin Short or Roseanne. The jury is still out on Dr. Laura. If there is a common denominator in the 2001 development slate, it's that "people are looking at broader topics and really scrutinizing the execution of these pilots. As opposed to saying, it's the year of x-y-z celeb," explains Wohl.

Or as Lee Gonsalves, Twentieth Television's senior vice president of programming and development, puts it, "I think it makes for a really interesting season. It kind of forces everyone to be more creative instead of going with a trend."

Also discouraging for studios looking for that sure thing to imitate-er, emulate-is that most of the new court shows (last year's easy pattern to spot) debuted quietly.

Included in the not-a-star-in-sight, mixed bag of concepts (Twentieth's Big Diet among them) are E-lim-i-date at Telepictures, in which one woman or man whittles down dating prospects; Speed Dating, from Universal, based on Orthodox Jewish dating rituals; and Columbia TriStar's People Vs., with people competingàla The Gong Show.

Among others in development are All You Need Is Love at Tribune, where a host solves relationship problems; Twentieth's The Big Pitch, with players brainstorming ideas to judges; and Studios USA's Zobmondo, based on the board game of the same name in which players ask questions starting with the phrase "would you rather.?"

"You have Dr. Laura, where a studio went out and made a huge several-million-dollar commitment, and it was all based on a name," notes Cliff Lachman, Twentieth's executive vice president of programming and development. "Certainly you want great talent, but, without a great format, it doesn't matter who you have."

For proof of this, take a peek at The Other View (once known as Guys) at NBC. This was described by a source as "[ABC's] The View, but asking 'what's the other view?' with men interviewing women, getting insights into women," instead of what it also is: a show headlined by veteran TV host Dick Clark and Partridge Family kid turned Los Angeles radio personality Danny Bonaduce.

Beyond trying to perfect a unique premise, studio executives are also mulling who exactly will be doing what in these times of consolidation. That has to stir things up a bit.

"People are worried about their jobs [at merging King World and Paramount]-not about what shows they're trying to launch," insists a syndication executive.

Likewise, in regard to Twentieth's not having a president to oversee operations (since Rick Jacobson's death last year), "it's probably slowing down the decision-making of what specifically will go out to the marketplace," says Twentieth's Gonsalves.

And there's Ed Wilson, NBC's newly named syndication chief, who has to first build the network's in-house syndication division-he hasn't named a staff yet-before he can start making the marketing rounds with The Other View to interested station groups.

But seriously, people, what would syndication be without a name vehicle? There are some in development (two projects being Studios USA's Kathy Levine and King World's Ananda Lewis). Plus, there's Paramount/Imagine Entertainment's talk series with Los Angeles radio-host Ryan Seacrest and Tribune's action hour Escape From New York, a resurrection of the film franchise executive-produced by but not starring Kurt Russell. And arguably, you can put Cher's makeover series into this category. Similarly, she will executive-produce rather than star.

To this, Lachman says: "With all of the personality-based, single-topic shows I hear being developed [others being Caroline Rhea with Judge Judy producer Big Ticket, liberal radio personality Tom Leykis with Studios USA and self-help guru Iyanla Vanzant with Buena Vista], I just think that's very hard. It's just so hard to get a show established."

Nevertheless, Twentieth reportedly is developing projects for KTTV-TV Los Angeles anchor Jillian Barberie, Talk Soup's John Henson, Big Brother contributor Dr. Drew Pinsky and past MTV veejay Kennedy.