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Strip Maul

When the question “How low can you go?” arises in the first-run syndication business, no one is doing the limbo.

As is the case in much of the TV industry, the ratings benchmark for success in syndication seems to drop another notch with each passing season. From 1999 through April of this year, the average national Nielsen rating for the top three new Monday-Friday strips has plunged nearly 55%, from 3.1 to 1.4, as audience fragmentation has increased.

This has produced a failure rate of more than 80%, with only 10 of 54 shows introduced during this period still on the air.

Of the seven new first-run series debuting this past season, only one—The Tony Danza Show—will return this fall. This is the lowest number of new-series renewals ever in the history of syndication.

With renewals for 1-rated shows often dependent on suppliers’ drumming up product-placement deals and filling station-group needs, many syndicators have retreated from daytime. Only four new entries are on tap for September, the fewest since 1981.

Once shows drop below a 1 rating, syndicators generally agree that it is tough to justify bringing them back, as this past season’s cancellations illustrate.

Many in the business now regard daytime as a no-go area. Despite having to pay out high production, distribution and promotion costs, they get relatively small or no license fees for their product, since stations generate low CPMs (cost per thousand viewers) selling direct-response ads in daytime.

The access hour leading into prime time continues to be the most lucrative, but it also carries the highest costs. Industry sources say magazine shows, which start on average at about $1 million per week to produce, have seen ratings decline from a 3.4 in 1999 (when there were five shows) to a 2.9 through April of this year (with six entrants).

Courtroom shows, running on average about $400,000-$450,000 per week, remain the healthiest syndicated genre, with ratings actually trending up a bit from last year.

Talk shows—ranging from $300,000-$350,000 per week for a program with a little-known host to astronomical costs for top-tier fare like The Oprah Winfrey Show—have held relatively constant in terms of ratings since 1999, averaging in the low to mid 2s. But the genre has a high casualty rate.

Relationship shows, now down to two productions (Blind Date and ElimiDate), have fallen below a 1.5 rating. They cost as much as $400,000-$450,000 per week to produce, sources say.

Game shows, starting at around $225,000 per week, have held up relatively well in the ratings over the years, but their numbers have diminished from a high of eight in 2002 to a five this past season. That is hardly hitting the jackpot, but, in the current climate, it is something of a prize.