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Syndication studios are expected to hold court on Madison Avenue this month with a slew of Judge Judy imitators and a bounty of off-network series all looking to cash in on syndication riches à la Seinfeld and Friends.

Nearly a dozen court shows will be signing up national advertisers in New York this week, as the syndication portion of the upfront season is expected to break wide open. The syndication sales efforts are expected to last until the first week of May, when cable and network television dealings will take center stage.

Last year, the Syndicated Network Television Association reported that nationally syndicated programs, both first-run and off-network series, reaped an estimated $2.4 billion in advertising sales-an all-time record for the industry. The 1999 upfront figure was higher than the $2 billion figure for 1998, and SNTA President Allison Bodenmann says this year should be even better.

"We are expecting a very, very strong market," says Bodenmann, whose organization works as a liaison between the syndication studios and advertising community. "Every indication is that people's budgets are up or consistent with last year and more people are considering syndication than ever before."

Estimates from syndication studio executives are in the $2.6 billion to $2.8 billion range in advertiser sales alone. Bodenmann says she doesn't make estimates but adds that another $3 billion or more will probably be reaped in cash-barter sales for the upcoming season. In all, syndication should garner close to $6 billion in advertiser and cash-barter sales for the 2000-01 season, industry analysts say-a figure many veteran syndicators said was unrealistic only a few years back.

Chris Kager, executive vice president, Columbia TriStar Advertiser Sales, expects to see some "pretty good" rate increases across the board. Kager's division is overseeing syndication sales not only for Columbia TriStar Television Distribution's programming but also for cable's Game Show Network and DirecTV's satellite and publishing divisions.

"I think overall we are going to see 8% to 13% rate increases, depending upon the properties," Kager says of syndicated fare. "The top-tiered stuff will be in the 12% to 15% range, while mid-tier properties will generally rise about 8% to 10%. I think the marketplace really does mirror last year's marketplace, which was, overall, very strong."

But what about the ups and downs on Wall Street over the past month?

"I think we were all taken aback by what transpired on the stock market recently. But the economy overall is strong, and the product line that the studios are bringing to the advertisers is solid. And we expect everything with the economy to right itself and not affect us too much, if at all," says Bob Cesa, executive vice president of barter and cable sales, Twentieth Television.

Bodenmann agrees there is no need to fret. "The big problems in the market were related to a lot of those new start-up technology companies-companies that we in syndication are not really big in. We are trying to get their business. But that's not where most of our money comes from."

Studio executives say automotive, fast-food, drug-manufacturing and packaging companies will bring the majority of advertising dollars to syndication this month. And the area a lot of the advertisers are looking to get into is the court-show genre. With six returning shows on the air and at least another half a dozen expected to launch this fall, court shows are everywhere.

"I remember when advertisers didn't want much to do with court shows a few years back," Bodenmann says. "Judge Judy has changed everything. Stations now like to use shows like Judy as their lead-ins to local news because they can attract a large audience."

Advertisers and studio executives say a show like Judge Judy is now bringing in between $50,000 and $60,000 a spot in national advertising revenue. Other returning court series attempting to generate similar dollars are Judge Joe Brown, Divorce Court, The People's Court, Judge Mills Lane and Judge Mathis. The newcomers are Columbia TriStar's Judge Hatchett, Warner Bros.' Moral Court, King World's Curtis Court, Unapix' Singles Court, Twentieth Television's Power of Attorney and Studios USA's Arrest & Trial-which is not a straight court show but a reality version of producer Dick Wolf's NBC series Law & Order.

"Just having Dick Wolf involved and his name on the show is going to go a long way for Arrest & Trial," says Dick Kurlander, vice president and director of programming for rep firm Petry. "I expect that series will do just fine during the upfronts."

The other area in syndication that annually reaps big rewards from advertisers is the off-network world-especially off-network comedies. For the 2000-01 season, Spin City heads a list of newcomers that includes Moesha; Clueless; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; Suddenly Susan; The Jamie Foxx Show; The Steve Harvey Show; and Malcolm and Eddie. Columbia TriStar's Just Shoot Me is expected to come on the market for next fall in the next few weeks. MTV's The Real World is also being sold in repeats for syndication. On the one-hour front, 7th Heaven, Nash Bridges, The Pretender and a handful of other series are on their way to individual markets.

Kurlander says there is one wild card to watch for in first-run syndication during the upfronts: Paramount Domestic Television's Dr. Laura. The controversial radio personality's planned daytime talker has been at the center of protests by gay and lesbian organizations for the past several months. "The show has certainly gained a lot of attention considering it hasn't even aired yet," says Kurlander. "We'll have to see how it does on Madison Avenue."