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No Sweeping Ratings Rise

The national household ratings from the recently completed May sweeps painted an ugly picture: Every show in first-run syndication, save one, failed to improve on its numbers from last May.

The lone exception, Entertainment Tonight, inched up 2% for the April 26-May 23 period. With broadcast also suffering a terrible spring, the figures weren’t unexpected.

Perhaps syndication needs Rosie O’Donnell after all.

“Everyone in the industry is struggling to keep people at the sets,” says John Nogawski, president/COO of CBS Television Distribution (CBSTD), which posted nine of the top 10 shows in syndication.

Attention now turns to the fall and the seven shows currently slated to debut. Clearly, a breakout hit is needed to reinvigorate the syndication market. But syndicators are weary of placing big-dollar bets in a cramped and sputtering marketplace.

Outside of someone’s paying huge money to lock up the firebrand O’Donnell, the numbers from this season seem to justify syndicators’ decisions to play it safe for now.

“The development continues to lessen because there’s a lack of lucrative time periods available,” says Nogawski. “If all that’s available is mornings and stations don’t want to pay for those times anymore when they can take a second run of an existing franchise for barter, well, your costs to develop something don’t go down any.”

On tap for next season are Warner Bros.’ tabloid magazine TMZ, NBC Universal’s Jerry Springer offspring The Steve Wilkos Show, Sony’s Judge David Young, game shows Temptation from 20th and Crosswords from Program Partners, Jury Duty from Foster/Tailwind, and the first full season of 20th’s Morning Show With Mike and Juliet.

With talkers featuring Megan Mullally, Greg Behrendt and Keith Ablow all getting cancelled this season, brand-name talk shows are a tougher sell, although many believe that O’Donnell could be a game changer.

And the sweeps numbers demonstrate the challenges, with even the queen of the category, Oprah, plunging 13% from May 2006 sweeps to a 6.2 average. Dr. Phil fell 5% to a 5.2, and Live With Regis and Kelly, on the strength of Regis Philbin’s return from bypass surgery, held steady at a 3.3.

Talk is an interesting contrast with the court genre, which will increase from nine to as many as 11 shows next season.

Court is a low-cost category (outside of huge talent like Judge Judy Sheindlin) that has also been relatively low risk, but with a limited ratings upside. Since the 2002 debut of the successful Oprah offshoot Dr. Phil, the average new court show has earned a 2.1 rating, while the typical rookie talker has garnered a 1.2.

But the sweeps period passed a stiff sentence on the nine-judge genre. Even category giant Judge Judy slipped 2% on the year to a 4.5.

TMZ will be joining a magazine category that held up best of any genre when compared with last year’s sweeps. ET’s 2% lift gave it a 5.0 average: The show has been the top-performing magazine every sweeps period since July 1990. Inside Edition (3.4) and Access Hollywood (2.5) each held steady.

All four game shows were down. Wheel of Fortune led all of first-run with a 7.3, but it was off 6% from last year.

The ratings struggle has led the industry to seek viewers through the Web. CBSTD is producing more segments of such shows as Entertainment Tonight and Dr. Phil that might play better on YouTube and social-networking sites.

“That’s why we maybe showed less deterioration of our numbers,” Nogawski says. “I think we’re learning.”