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Off-Net's Big Gains

Over the past decade, the number of first-run shows developed and launched by syndicators has plunged while the number of off-network programs—including those off both broadcast and cable networks—has skyrocketed.

That's the seasoned observation of Chuck Larsen, president of October Moon Television, a Los Angeles-based television distribution consulting company.

According to October Moon's research, syndicators were in development on 62 new first-run shows when the NATPE convention rolled around in 1998. Of those, 19 shows launched. In fall 2008, fewer than half that number of shows ended up on the air.

This season, there are only 23 first-run shows in development. Of those, only seven look to have a chance at launching, and just three of those are sure things. Only Sony's Dr. Oz, CBS' T.D. Jakes and Debmar-Mercury'sWendy Williams appear to be on firm ground.

Warner Bros.' Judge Jeanine Pirro—returning to syndication after a daytime run on The CW—Litton's Street Court and Program Partners' Marie Osmond remain firmly in the “maybe” category. Twentieth is just beginning sales calls for Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

Meanwhile, names such as Valerie Bertinelli, Marisa Jaret Winokur, Al D'Amato, Jesse Ventura, Leah Remini, Paula Deen and Patricia Heaton seem to have faded from view. Surprises frequently pop up at NATPE, however; shows that had been considered dead find a buyer and proceed.

Part of the reason that fewer shows are securing launch dates this year is instability at Tribune Broadcasting, which entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month. Tribune is one of television's major buyers of syndicated shows.

First-run court shows have had a better time getting themselves launched. In the past decade, 48 court shows have been developed and 17 have launched, a 42% success rate. Comparatively, nearly 200 talk shows have been developed (or at least floated) while only 47 have launched, a 27% success rate.

“As the cost of first-run shows continues to increase and the ratings continue to decrease, it becomes less and less feasible to do first-run shows,” says Larsen, a veteran of the syndication business.

Launching is only the beginning of the battle. To become profitable, a first-run show needs to stay on the air for at least three or four seasons.

That's one reason stations are increasingly turning to off-network shows, which have increased by 64% over the past decade. This year, 25 sitcoms and 16 dramas are airing in off-net syndication on TV stations. In 1998, only 15 off-net comedies and 10 off-net dramas were on the air.

“Off-network programming is already produced and already successful,” Larsen says. “If it hadn't already made it four years on the network, it wouldn't come to syndication. That means the show is branded and the viewers know it. And the show is basically paid for once it gets to syndication.”

Today, there's also much more off-network programming from which stations can choose. In the past five years, cable networks have begun to produce successful original series that are now moving to syndication. Last month, Warner Bros. sold TNT's The Closer, the most viewed original series on basic cable, to Fox.

And NBC has started a trend by selling its one-hour dramas—Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—to stations as weekday strips. “That worked, and now there are several studios looking at taking off-network hours into syndication as Monday-through-Friday strips,” Larsen says. “Those will go mostly into daytime time periods where people previously have aired first-run shows.”