Studios keep hope alive
Cost-conscious syndicators are readying new shows for NATPE, knowing full well that many will not last a season
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/5/2000 7:00:00 PM
This isn't your grandmother's syndication business. Over the next several weeks, Hollywood studios are expected to unveil some 20 to 30 new syndicated programs that will be on the sales floor at NATPE come January, just 12 weeks from now.
There's the prerequisite buzz about the would-be newcomers. Studios USA is pinning its hopes and dollars on Kathy Levine, a home-shopping hostess who quietly has grown into a star. Self-help author Iyanla Vanzant, a regular guest on Oprah, is trying to parlay that into a talk show slot for Buena Vista. Paramount has high hopes for the high-spirited Caroline Rhea. Here and there, you can run into names like perennial Tom Arnold, comedian Alan Thicke, MTV's Ananda Lewis and celebrity temptress Carmen Electra.
The process is nothing new. It has happened every winter for the last 38 years.
The King Worlds, Paramounts, Warner Bros. and Columbia TriStars trot out their latest batch of talk, magazine, court, action or off-network shows for the coming season. And every year each studio promises to have the next big thing in syndication-the next Oprah Winfrey or Entertainment Tonight.
Sometimes they do. More often, they don't.
The syndication industry is still big business, with annual license fees to studios in the $4 billion to $5 billion range and another $2 billion to $2.5 billion in barter-advertising sales switching hands every season. But ratings have hit all-time lows across the board, with new first-run shows this season averaging well below a 2.0 national household rating-a threshold that would have had a new syndicated series pulled off the air only a few years back.
Very rarely do syndicated shows make it past one full season, and some don't survive for more than a few months. Increased competition from cable, the Internet and even from expanded broadcast-network schedules has made syndication a very risky bet these days.
"Daytime is killing a lot of people right now," says one top syndication head. "I don't know why these people continue to go after these real expensive one-hour talk shows. Nobody is watching them. That's not where the market is. It's a big money pit"
Earlier in the '90s, syndicators launched talk shows featuring Sally Jessy Raphael, Montel Williams, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. But since Columbia TriStar Television Distribution launched Ricki Lake in 1993, 122 other first-run strips (shows on five days a week) have been launched in syndication. But of the talk shows in that bunch, guess how many are still on the air? One: Warner Bros.' The Rosie O'Donnell Show.
The list of failures is long and wide, including Roseanne, Howie Mandel, Magic Johnson, Terry Bradshaw, Donny and Marie, Carnie Wilson and even Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
"The hope is that you will have the exception to the rule, that you will have that one breakout show," says Tribune Entertainment President Dick Askin. "The market has been getting tougher every year for a long time now, but in spite of that, you still have new shows coming on the air that break through the barrier and prove to be very successful."
But looking at last year's crop of new talk shows and at this season's, the future doesn't look too promising.
Last fall saw the launch of Dr. Joy Browne, Ainsley Harriott, Richard Simmons' Dream Maker, Martin Short and Queen Latifah. Only Latifah came back for a second year and, in the most recent national ratings, was averaging a 1.1 household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Among this fall's batch of talk shows, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and Housecalls are all averaging below a 1.5 national rating. Men Are From Mars averaged only a 0.8 rating in the recent weekly figures.
How low can the ratings go?
"It depends on the cost of production, and it depends on what kind of product we're talking about," says Steve Rosenberg, president of Studios USA Domestic Television. "There is no clear answer. We'll have to see."
Petry Media's Director and Vice President of Programming Garnett Losak says syndication may be losing ground to cable, but it still isn't losing altogether.
"Cable networks make money on a .3 rating, so a 1.5, 1.4 rating in syndication looks pretty good to that," says Losak. "I think there is money to be made, and I often hear from syndicators that a 2.0 demo rating is what they need to make money on most shows. That's certainly doable, but it's getting tougher."
The alternative appears to be cheaper programming. Game, relationship, court and reality shows are in, multimillion-dollar talk shows are out.
Industry executives say the average weekly production costs for a first-run court show are in the $180,000 to $220,000 range. For video-clip reality shows, it's even cheaper. And the ratings for such shows are generally working. Judge Judy is the highest-rated one of the bunch, now averaging close to a 7.0 national rating in its fifth season in syndication. Of the 11 first-run court shows currently in syndication, half are averaging over a 2.0 national rating, including newcomer Power of Attorney .
"If you are going to bring out a new show now, you really have to believe in the product," says Studios USA's Rosenberg. "Then the next question is how much do you really believe in the product, how good is it really and how long can you stay with it bleeding the amount of money that you are bleeding, depending upon production costs."
Not many stations have patience these days, and with the consolidation of the marketplace, on both the studio and station side, shows from rival companies aren't being given too much opportunity to succeed.
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