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Syndies set to fill gaps

TV studio executives leaving their offices when it's still daylight, shutting off their cell phones: Nope, it's not Friday, but the eve of this year's first-run syndicated series launches.

The quick exits of Buena Vista's The Ainsley Harriott Show, Pearson's Judgment Day and Unapix's Legacy-plus the probable demises of King World's Dr. Joy Browne, Roseanne, The Martin Short Show and Paramount's Leeza-have left holes in station lineups. And that's just in time for next season's debut of 15 new hopefuls.

Granted, most on-deck syndicated series locked up the bulk of their station clearances shortly after January's NATPE convention, but many studio reps believe their respective babies have a real shot come September and October.

Petry Television's Dick Kurlander elaborates: "I think this fall will be easier [for the new crop of first-run shows] because you've already done a little bit of housecleaning, so it presents some opportunity where there hasn't been."

The outlook is also sunny because "there is a little bit more diversity, interesting spins on court [shows], and you have a very prominent name with Dr. Laura [Schlessinger], so I think this is a positive environment for everybody."

Take, for instance, Twentieth Television's Power of Attorney, featuring high-profile attorneys F. Lee Bailey, Christopher Darden and Gloria Allred.

The studio's executive vice president and general sales manager, Paul Franklin, boasts that the show had the best court clearances at NATPE at 70% and now covers 92% of the U.S.). But he admits, "The show's been really well received because of the success of Divorce Court [the same executive producers will back Power], but it is good that we don't have to worry about a couple of court competitors."

Like most executives hoping to be the next new variation, rather than the latest copy, Franklin insists, "This is a twist on what's already out there. Our focus is on the attorneys more so than the judge. And we are premiering in August, so we'll be able to get out ahead of the pack."

However, the team behind Dick Wolf-created Arrest and Trial, which is cleared in 92% of the country on more than 150 stations, isn't concerned about rivals.

"The truth is, if a show goes on the air and it's good, then people will watch it. In syndication, how often have you seen a show that's really good get cancelled? It just doesn't happen, because if it's really good, it'll find an audience and get upgraded," says Studios USA Domestic Television President Steve Rosenberg.

Arrest and Trial, a daily strip produced by Dick Wolf and Maury Povich's MoPo Entertainment, follows the complete runs of criminal trials, making use of archived police footage. The show will debut Oct. 2.

Rounding out the crowded court calendar are Warner Bros.' Moral Court, King World's Curtis Court and Columbia TriStar's Judge Hatchett.

Moral Court, now clearing 82% of the country, will be double-run in several markets in the afternoons and in late night.

Warner Bros. is banking on the show reaching the 3 ratings mark. It is hosted by radio personality Larry Elders and created by Stu Billett (the man behind the launch of People's Court).

Even so, "it's always hard to predict what's going to work," says Warner Bros. Executive Vice President of domestic TV distribution, Dan Greenblatt. "Stations have more hope on some shows than others, but we are all just in the hope business."

King World says Curtis Court is likewise a firm go, but provides no other information. And Judge Hatchett, a late NATPE entry, has secured 87% coverage.

For all the glass-is-half-full talk, there are some nagging questions about a couple of the best bets.

With October just around the corner, Arrest and Trial, is still without a host.

"That position is critical, and it bothers me a bit that, in early May, we don't have a person named," says Petry's Kurlander. "The one negative [to Arrest and Trial] is that there aren't central characters that will reappear, so you need a really, really strong host to pull everything together."

Another gray area is Paramount's policy about Dr. Laura in the wake of several gay-rights groups' protests.

Still, the studio says the show is on the verge of pre-production and will start airing in September.

Dr. Laura is through the roof in terms of clearances (securing 95% of the U.S. in 175 markets).

And both of the studio's domestic TV co-presidents Frank Kelly and Joel Berman have promised the show will roll out as planned.

"There are groups that are against Dr. Laura, and they have the perfect right to yell as loud as they want, but we're also fine with putting the show on the air," says Kelly.

Seconding that, Berman says, "There have been a couple of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco where there's been pressure [from advocacy groups to stop the show], but the affiliates have been supportive."

One more obstacle for Dr. Laura is that the show must succeed where this year's similar shows have struggled.

"You have the failure of Dr. Joy Browne and have the general erosion of the talk audience," says Kurlander. "I have some concern because I don't know what makes it different from Browne or any of these other dysfunctional, relationship talk shows."

Also coming down the pike this fall are series hungering for sleeper-hit status. Shows, such as Buena Vista and Chris-Craft/United Television's Housecalls, Columbia TriStar's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Warner Bros.' Street Smarts and Pearson's To Tell the Truth are often overshadowed by this season's granddaddy court efforts and much-talked-about Dr. Laura but are nevertheless picking up steam.

"While court shows have the best chance for success because they are the hot genre and will get showcased better than any other type of show, it will be difficult for the average viewer to discern tangible differences between them," says Katz TV's Bill Carroll. "[The next class of court shows] looks the same and is aimed at the same audience. They will run against each other and savage themselves."

However, Carroll is optimistic about Housecalls, To Tell the Truth and Street Smarts. "Because they're distinctive and different, these shows really don't look like anything else, so people will likely sample them."

Housecalls, cleared at just over 70% in early fringe and daytime slots, features roving psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Wolkoff going inside troubled couples' and families' homes to solve their problems. The show will be executive-produced by Harris Kattleman and Jonathan Goodson.

"If you want counter-programming, Housecalls is unique," says Buena Vista Executive Vice President of Sales Tom Cerio. "[T]his show has as an organic feel with its own premise. And people won't be yelling and screaming at each other, but actually talking."

Laurey Barnett, executive vice president of Chris-Craft's TV division, agrees. "I have a great deal of enthusiasm that this show can break through."

Street Smarts, now reaching 90% clearance, aims to attract the same niche audiences as relationship game shows Change of Heart and Blind Date. Warner Bros.' sees young viewers similarly falling for its MTVish edginess. "When we saw a rough-cut [of Street Smarts], we thought it was hysterical," says Warner Bros.' Greenblatt. "And this is not a tough show to execute, so we'd really have to screw this up for it not to work."

Street Smarts, hosted by comedian Frank Nicotero and created by Change of Heart executive producer Scott St. John, pits two contestants against each other in determining which passersby can correctly answer trivia questions.

Rounding out the game shows, To Tell the Truth (a revival of the classic quizzer to be steered by Seinfeld alum John O'Hurley aka Mr. Peterman) has been cleared in 85% of the country. Pearson began production last week.

On the talk-show front, Columbia TriStar's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus has secured 88% clearance. King World's The Cindy Margolis Show is set to roll in late night, but the studio withheld further information.

Also eyeing opportunities for success are the producers of a handful of new action-hour series. Many last less than a season, but, with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys having departed, Doublecross declared a "no go," and New Line's Matthew Blackheart: Monster Smasher opting for cable, shows like Columbia TriStar's Sheena should have a brighter future. Sheena stars former Baywatch bombshell Gena Lee Nolin and has reached 98% clearance.

Hercules' Kevin Sorbo will return this fall in Tribune's Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda (94% clearance), and Mercury Entertainment and Paramount's joint effort Queen of Swords has hit 85%. Already humming are Studios USA's January entries Cleopatra 2525 and Jack of All Trades, which air back-to-back on more than 200 stations, reaching 99% of the country.