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Syndication Takes Ratings Hit

The syndication business is reluctant to roll out new shows for 2007, and it's not hard to understand why. Five genres, including talk, court and off-network sitcoms, suffered double-digit declines this past fall.

Magazine programs, last season's darlings, were down to a lesser degree. In fact, everything fell but game shows. But even that genre hasn't sparked much optimism, because there's little room to expand due to a lack of openings in the access hour leading into primetime.

Various developments over the years have contributed to the syndication slump. It began with the cessation of restrictive network-ownership rules, which pushed outside suppliers to the sidelines and led to mass consolidation. More recently, newer technologies, such as the widespread deployment of broadband, have further sliced up the viewing pie.

"Control has shifted to the viewers, and everyone is trying to figure out how to make money on the front end, rather than on the back end [rerun market]," says a high-level syndication executive who asked not to be named. "Now we are seeing the consequences, like streaming shows on the Web for free with commercials."

Through Dec. 11, the nine returning chat shows had sunk 25% from a 3.2 in fall 2005 to 2.4 in the Nielsen national syndication barter ratings.

Off-net comedies had a similar slide, dropping 22% from 2.7 to 2.1. That was driven by continuing losses for the aging trio of Everybody Loves Raymond (off 15%), Seinfeld (off 19%) and Friends (off 27%).

The jam-packed court docket also got hammered, giving up 18% of its ratings (2.8 to 2.3). Still, a majority of bench veterans suffered more-modest single-digit losses: CBS Paramount's Judge Judy (to a 4.6) and Judge Joe Brown (2.9), Warner Bros.' People's Court (2.7) and Twentieth Television's Judge Alex (2.0). Warner Bros.' Judge Mathis (2.4), meanwhile, held steady.

But after losing many double and triple runs, Twentieth's Divorce Court dropped 23% from 2.6 to 2.0, while Sony's Judge Hatchett dived 17% from 1.8 to 1.5.

Despite court's oversaturation, syndicators still like the genre's low production costs, and continue to push more court product. Sony has Judge David Young for fall, Warner Bros. is out selling Celebrity Court, and Twentieth is contemplating a program as well.

The magazine category was helped last season by a plethora of celebrity weddings, breakups, pregnancies and adoptions. This season, the boldface-name news was more muted. As a result, the five returning magazine shows were down a total of 6%, from 3.2 to 3.0. NBC Universal's Access Hollywood (up 8% from 2.5 to 2.7) and CBS Paramount's top-rated Entertainment Tonight (up 4% from 5.1 to 5.3) posted the only increases.

Paramount's The Insider (2.8 to 2.7) and Warner Bros.' Extra (2.3 to 2.2) dropped 4%, while King World's Inside Edition (3.5) remained flat. They were able to keep overall losses to a minimum by benefiting early in the season from the carry over of last summer's Mel Gibson scandal and John Mark Karr's false confession to killing JonBenet Ramsey.

They also got slight ratings bumps in November from Michael Richards' racist tirade and stories about the alleged hoodwinking of unsuspecting participants in the Borat film, among others.

The year wasn't all doom and gloom, as game shows rose 2% from 4.9 to 5.0. The increase came from a 10% rise (3.0 to 3.3) for Buena Vista Television's Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and slight increases for the longtime syndication champions, King World's Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, up to 8.3 and 6.5, respectively.

But they were the only ones popping the celebratory champagne at year end.