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Suddenly Strong

After years of sucking wind, syndication is showing new vigor, thanks to a crop of first-run strips that’s double the size of last fall’s rookie class. The six debuting this fall are four talk and two court shows. Add to those a new weekly series, four off-network sitcoms and three dramas, along with the three first-run strips introduced last season, and syndication—of late, a victim of industry consolidation—is suddenly robust.

With upfront season still under way, it’s too early to say for sure if the segment’s resurgence will translate to an uptick in ad revenue. But output is increasing because, even in an era of declining ratings, successful syndicated shows can have a long shelf life. Thirteen first-run shows, such as Judge Judy, are entering at least their 10th season in 2006-07, versus eight on the broadcast networks. And although the fewest number of new strips since 1981 was introduced last season, the coming year marks the first time since then that each has been renewed.

Leading the way are the talk shows, with 13 on this fall. That comes after two got the ax and four—King World’s Rachael Ray, Sony’s Greg Behrendt, Telepictures’ Keith Ablow and NBC Universal’s Megan Mullally—climbed on board. Although this past season’s 11 talkers represented the fewest number in seven years, they generated their highest ratings averages during the same time frame. Despite the overall increase, the two newest ones, Telepictures’ Tyra Banks and NBC U’s Martha, were renewed with average national household ratings below 2.

The profitable court genre, strong in recent years, saw erosion among the top three programs this past season. But modest ratings gains among the bottom three helped boost the number of new court shows next season from seven to nine.

Among the magazines, the four mainstays—CBS-Paramount’s Entertainment Tonight, King World’s Inside Edition, NBC Universal’s Access Hollywood and Telepictures’ Extra—saw their average ratings grow. That growth, however, was attributed largely to the cancellation of Telepictures’ Celebrity Justice, rather than a major growth spurt on their part. All returning programs were either flat or showed modest year-to-year growth through most of the season.

The number of game shows will hold steady at four in 2006-07 after having reached a peak of eight in 2001-02. The weaker shows have fallen out, which has increased overall ratings. Still, the top three—King World’s Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! and Buena Vista Television’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire—declined more this past season than the top programs in the other syndicated categories. Consequently, no new gamers are planned, although Tribune’s Family Feud gets a new host and an updated format.

The number of first-run weeklies, meanwhile, has fallen from a high of 20 in 1998 to five the past two seasons, chiefly because first-run action hours are drying up. Only one series, Program Partners’ Canadian import Da Vinci’s Inquest, is offering fresh episodes. A few other Canadian offerings, such as comedy Corner Gas, join the fray soon.

First-run shows appearing on weekends have decreased, from 11 in 2003 to eight this past season. That’s due to syndicators’ adding sixth runs of weekday series and expanding some shows from 30 minutes to an hour. Also, the number of off-net sitcoms airing on the weekends has climbed from three in 1999 to 10 most recently.

Some in the industry say this impedes the sale of off-network hours by taking up already tight shelf space.