Talking up Syndie 2002

For the new first-run syndication season, program distributors and their station clients are focused on the two meat-and-potatoes formats of the medium: talk shows and game shows. With six new talk shows and two new game shows on the schedule, more than half the new strips for the 2002-03 season fall into one of those categories.

Behind all of syndication's efforts is that this fall marks the start of what will be an aggressive multi-year effort on the part of talk-show syndicators to come up with the next Oprah Winfrey Show, says Garnett Losak, vice president, programming for Petry Media Group. Winfrey insists that she's quitting the show after 2006, which gives the whole syndication business several tries to find someone as strong to replace her.

"There is clearly a movement afoot to find an Oprah
replacement," says Losak. "You can expect that, for the next several years, everyone will be looking for that next 4 o'clock show."

To some extent, the new talk entries are trying to emulate the success of shows that have gone before them. Serious-minded
The John Walsh Show and The Rob Nelson Show, for example, are likened to Phil Donahue, which ruled the first-run talk genre for much of 1970s and early 1980s.

Wayne Brady and Caroline Rhea are both entertainers, and their shows will reflect their backgrounds in blending talk with some variety elements. Dr. Phil, as King World Chairman Roger King will remind you repeatedly, is a spin-off of perhaps the most successful talk show in the history of the business, The Oprah Winfrey Show.

And James Van Praagh communes with the dead. But don't scoff. Dick Askin, president of Tribune Entertainment, which distributes Beyond With James Van Praagh, says it is sold out for the season at rates that were pretty far out there, too. He credits Van Praagh with much of that success: The host met with a lot of advertisers and agency buyers at this year's NATPE convention and essentially sold them on his schtick.

Of course, having a successful entry in the genre, Crossing Over With John Edward, didn't hurt either, Askin admits.

For TV stations, there probably hasn't been a more important show in syndication than Oprah
in the past 20 years. Why? Of all the syndicated shows, the show provides the best lead-in for local newscasts. Stations that carry it will miss it dearly and are encouraging distributors to try to find a suitable replacement; stations that don't have it are hoping to find the next Oprah

"She's gone in May of 2006, but you have to be on the air by 2004 to generate a ratings track record if you're going to be seriously considered as a replacement," says Katz Media Group Vice President Bill Carroll.

Finding a solid 4 p.m. show is clearly the strategy for NBC's new talk hopeful, The John Walsh Show, which will debut mostly in morning time periods. "If he proves himself and becomes the hit we think he can become," says NBC Enterprises President Ed Wilson, "he's also got the opportunity to play at 3 or 4 o'clock. And that's what television stations are looking for. They need good strong local-news lead-ins. Oprah
has given stations around the country a terrific advantage as being a great news lead-in."

Beyond the upcoming season, three talk projects on tap for '03 are almost sure to make it to air: Warner Bros. Ellen DeGeneres, Universal Television's Fergie
and NBC/Court TV's Trial by Fire. King World is also developing at least two for '03, including a daytime show called Living It Up! With Ali & Jack, hosted by Jack Ford and Alexandra Wentworth, the new wife of ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

In the game-show arena, Pyramid, hosted by Donnie Osmond, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, with Meredith Vieira, are old but are debuting in new versions in September.

But two other shows are sort of new as well. Weakest Link
bowed in January so this will be its first full season on the air. And Family Feud
is getting a complete makeover, including a new host, Richard Karn, known best perhaps as Al the tool guy from Home Improvement. In effect, Feud
is being relaunched.

Carroll sees the resurgence of game-show activity in syndication as a product of the success (though brief) of Millionaire
and, to a lesser degree, Weakest Link
in network prime time runs. But, he notes, the fate of all the new games is "ultimately intertwined as they are running in blocks in many situations."

Petry's Losak believes the '02-'03 season is do-or-die time for the genre. Over several seasons, none of the new first-run game show contenders has emerged as a bona fide hit, she says. "They've all been lukewarm, not bad enough to cancel and a struggle to renew," she says. "I think this season will be very interesting for the game format in that, if one of them doesn't hit big, we just may see game-show development going back to remission."

King remains rather amused by the would-be competitors in the game arena. "Strong production values have kept Wheel of Fortune
and Jeopardy
challenging and entertaining. And the plethora of challengers have all blown up."

A slight overstatement, but clearly none of them have been able to put a glove on either Wheel
or Jeopardy, the top two rated first-run shows in syndication for two decades.

Meanwhile, the entire syndication business is looking forward to the new season for several reasons, not the least of which is that the viewing and advertising environment for the fourth quarter will be far more upbeat and positive than it was last year. Sept. 11 put a huge damper on an already depressed market. And syndication was hurt the worst, certainly from an ad-sales stand- point. Some estimates put the business down 30% from the previous year.

"But," says Tribune Entertainment's Askin, "now I think there's a feeling of renewed optimism that we'll see a far better TV environment, generally speaking, a more receptive environment on the part of viewers and advertisers."

Certainly, the syndication advertising business has taken a turn for the better. Gene DeWitt, president of the Syndicated Network Television Association (SNTA), estimates that this year's syndication upfront ad sales were up 18% from last year, to $2 billion.

"And there is a feeling that there very well could be some broadcast-network shortfalls," which could tighten up inventory and enable syndicators to do very well in the scatter market, DeWitt says.

According to Askin, Tribune Entertainment's ad revenue is up 25%, the result of both improved sell-out rates and higher pricing. He notes that, last year, many syndication shows sold just 50% to 60% of their inventory upfront and, this year, those levels have been boosted to 70%-plus to 80%-plus.

King says this year's upfront was "the strongest upfront we have had in years," with price increases averaging around 9% across the company's programs. And Dr. Phil, the new talk show, was one of the drivers, he says, adding that the show got the highest ad rates ever for a new show that King World has brought to market. He predicts the show will do a 3.0 to 3.5 rating, which would make it a huge hit.

Bragging is easier before the syndication season begins, but this season does seem brighter than in recent years. "None of my members are complaining," says SNTA's DeWitt, about the ad business they're writing up. Syndicators and stations hope he can still say that a few months from now.