With Time Slots Rare, Syndie Seems Sedate

Syndicators are bracing for a light fall season this year with only four major new first-run strips being launched this year—Warner Bros.' The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Warner Bros.' The Sharon Osbourne Show, NBC Enterprises' Starting Over, and King World's Living It Up! With Ali & Jack. The slow fall is being attributed to vertical integration and the relative success of last year's crop of shows, led by King World's Dr. Phil.

"In any year there are a limited number of slots available, and this year there were in essence three slots that were not available because of success. That's part of it," says Bill Carroll, vice president of programming at Katz Media. "And with fewer companies, there are going to be fewer shows launched."

The top-two rookie shows last season, Dr. Phil and Buena Vista game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, maintained their slots and Sony's Pyramid performed well enough to hold on to its time periods as well. NBC Enterprises' The John Walsh Show also was renewed for a second season, although the show's ratings are low. Walsh, cleared in daytime slots, has hovered around a 1.3 for the past several months, making it the 83rd-ranked program in syndicated television.

"I think the marketplace has tightened up because of long-term renewals and because of double runs of off-net sitcoms," says John Nogawski, president of Paramount Domestic Television. "It used to be that shows were renewed annually so they flipped more often. But now with shows like Oprah, Phil, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Entertainment Tonight, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, that explains it. As the list gets longer, there is less available real estate each year."

What space is left, Nogawski says, is divided up by the major station launch groups—ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and Tribune—and all those companies are fed shows by their own syndication companies. It's only when one of those syndicators doesn't have a developed program ready to fill a slot that outside syndicators—Sony, Universal and Warner Bros., in particular—get the chance to launch a show.

Still, Warner Bros. this fall is premiering two major shows—Ellen and Sharon—even though the company doesn't own and isn't affiliated with a major station group.

"We have launched an unprecedented co-op [advertising] campaign with our stations," says Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros., "and we have bought a massive amount of advertising on cable television." Moving into cable, he said, is a new strategy for a major syndicator.

"We felt that having looked at this closely and looked at the viewers, cable is a far better place to reach them. We want to fish where the fish are," he says.

Robertson argues that when outside producers like Warner Bros. produce syndicated fare, it relieves networks of the risk of the start up costs. Warner Bros. also will repurpose Ellen on cable network Oxygen the week after each episode airs on TV stations.

Meanwhile, NBC is preoccupied with the launch of its own show, Starting Over, in which six women live together while trying to straighten out their lives. The syndicator hopes the daytime reality show works, though an earlier reality show Life Moments failed in the daytime.

"Starting Over is truly different and really believe that to break out in daytime you have to be different," says Linda Finnell, senior vice president of programming for NBC Enterprises. "It combines a reality show with a talk show and a soap opera and we are doing it with the people who know how to do reality best," meaning long-time reality producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray (See Q&A, page 12).

"If there is a trend with the potential to begin this season it would be Starting Over," says Katz' Carroll. "It's taking advantage of the success of unscripted filmed shows on network television. If Starting Over succeeds, we can be assured there will be many more such shows."

King World seems confident but it faces a challenge with the launch of Living It Up! with Ali & Jack, which will go head-to-head with Buena Vista's Live With Regis & Kelly in many markets.

But don't call them copy cats.

"This show is not a carbon copy of Regis and Kelly. It is completely different," says Roger King, CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World Productions. "The best thing to do is produce the best show possible and then make sure there is only one place to watch it so it develops into a franchise for the station."

While those four shows prepare to premiere, Buena Vista's The Wayne Brady Show will launch nationally on Sept. 1, after getting a limited roll-out last year. And Twentieth's Classmates and Ambush Makeover will continue on Fox-owned stations, with Twentieth eyeing a national launch for both shows sometime in 2004.

Paramount also is launching this fall's only first-run weekend hour from a major syndicator with Unexplained Mysteries, which is cleared in 94% of the country.

Other weekend shows are coming from smaller syndicators, with that daypart getting less and less busy. Telco Productions has weekly half-hour Missing for fall, cleared in 85% of the country, joining Telco's other weekly show, Animal Rescue. Byron Allen's CF Entertainment has three weekly half-hours: Automotivevision.TV, Urban Style and Latin Lifestyles.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.