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Running against time

First-run shows are generally blessed with having a full season to prove their worth. But this year? Some insiders are wondering whether studios can be patient, given a really rough ad market that adds another problem to a first-run show's typical difficulties.

Experts say advertising pricing is off 25% from last year's levels for those syndicated series that aren't of Oprah
or Judge Judy
quality—and even the A-list shows are seen to be getting 10% below what they were fetching in 2000.

So this season should test studios' patience more than other seasons, according to Howard Nass, chief of local broadcast at ad rep firm Initiative Media. "Because you have two things hurting you: There's the downturn in ratings, and the dollars aren't coming in. It's a double whammy."

Most new syndicated shows operate at a big loss in their first season because stations aren't forced to ante up the nice license fees until a series builds an audience.

But, without the ad dollars that were there last year and given the modest license fees to cover production costs, "it's got to be on their mind" to throw in the towel earlier rather than later, says Nass. "If they see that they are in a terribly negative cash flow, they are going to have to pull the plug."

There are signs of eventual growth for the new crop: Buena Vista's Iyanla, Columbia TriStar's Shipmates
and Studios USA's Crossing Over With John Edward.

Edward's show is apparently tracking the best. Scoring a 1.5/4 metered-market average after three days, Crossing Over
is 12% below what its time periods were doing this time last year. But it's just 6% off its average lead-in.

Nevertheless, one top studio executive says he believes there will be "a higher-percentage" of shows leaving the scene in January than previously, recalling Ainsley Harriot
as one recent example of a show that got dropped quickly. "If you're not getting barter and you're not getting ratings, it's going to be game over."

Teri Luke, director of programming at PMC (which comprises newly merged station rep firms Petry and Blair Television), says, "It was impressive" that Crossing Over
wasn't totally off target. "It's been many years since we've seen that" for a new show, she explains.

Crossing Over
may not be feeling the heat to do well right off the bat, since its episodes mostly consist of material from its Sci Fi Channel run. There's not a lot of extra production costs going into its strip version.

And most major syndicators do have deep pockets that would allow them to ride out the ad crunch if they choose. That is likely to be true for Paramount's coming Rendez-View
and King World's The Ananda Lewis Show, which have Viacom pockets to draw on. And NBC may want to give The Other Half
extra care, since it will be the first series to roll out of its new in-house syndication division.

Also, Buena Vista could stick with Iyanla
given the fact that its ratings in week two (1.5/5) topped the first week's numbers (0.9/3) by 67% on key station KNBC-TV Los Angeles. After 12 days, though, Iyanla
(1.4/5 average) is 30% below its average lead-in (2.0/7) and 18% below what the time periods were doing this time last year (1.7/6). Even so, it "is Barbara Walters' show," notes an insider, referring to the show's high-profile executive producer. "That is not going to be an easy thing to move quickly."

As for Shipmates
(1.0/3 for three days), it's 17% below its lead-in (1.2/4) and its time periods' year-ago levels (1.2/4). But it's posting respectable results (2.4/6) on WCBS-TV New York.

In the end, though, it all comes down to the bottom line: how much deficit spending the studio is willing to tolerate.