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It Pays To Be Smart

Warner Bros.' Dick Robertson aims upscale in a downscale daypart 1/12/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern

There really are a lot of things more depressing than watching daytime television (war and famine, for example), but there are many, many things that are more enjoyable, too (say, driving a rental truck). Daytime television gets no respect, and, given what many syndicators try every year to woo new viewers, apparently doesn't seek much, either.

"We all know that, as cable and satellite proliferated, there was this great migration from broadcast television," said Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. "The greatest migration was in daytime," where cable has grabbed more viewers than broadcast for several years now. And cable daytime viewers are generally the cream of the crop: richer, younger, more educated.

Losing share, syndicators have reacted by dumbing down their product for an audience that, increasingly, represented the fringes of society. All the misfits of the world haven't appeared as guests on The Jerry Springer Show, but just about all of them watch it.

"It's sort of become a self-defeating prophecy, " Robertson said. "We all began producing shows for the audience that was left. And if you go out fighting for just the audience that's left, you might get a decent rating, but it's hard to sell to advertisers." For proof, chart the ads on Springer, where the spots are a veritable directory of personal-injury lawyers and life-insurance companies that can't drop you even if you are carrying the plague.

Robertson won't deny Warner Bros. hasn't dabbled in the dumb-down derby, but he is a salesman, too, who would argue that his shop is producing among the handful of syndicated daytime shows that can still pull disaffected upscale audiences away from cable and back to broadcast. Rosie, at least in the first few years, was bright enough that you didn't feel dirty watching it. There are others. Robertson notes that King World's Martha Stewart's Living, for example, doesn't get much of a rating, but advertisers will pay more for her 1 rating than they will for some shows with a 3. "And these people," he said about ad buyers, "aren't stupid."

At NATPE next week, Robertson will be peddling new talk shows from Ellen DeGeneres, the comedian, and Sharon Osbourne, the wife of Ozzy and, in comparison with the family around her, the straight man on MTV's bizarre reality series. Both of the shows are produced by Telepictures, an arm of Warner Bros.' syndication division.

Robertson (salesman, remember?) will go so far as to say that it's "very important for the industry to have these shows work." That's because they invite back upscale audiences.

"The downside is stations pay a lot more for these shows," he said. The upside, he says, is that, by airing a "smart" syndicated show rather than the typical shoutfest with exactly the same rating, Warner Bros. and local stations walk away with "two, three, four times" the CPM. "Our content doesn't eliminate half the advertisers" who won't appear within the one-issue talk show (which is a nice way to refer to the shows hosted by Springer/Montel/Maury and, ahem, Warner Bros.' Jenny Jones).

Some—maybe a lot—of this is spin, but, having seen DeGeneres on tour in New York and on tape from Fort Lauderdale, I can say she is brilliant as a standup, giving two hours of mainstream, observational stuff that wouldn't make a nun blush. Watching the act, you can just imagine the show. (If you're wondering, her days of fighting for her sexual identity are over. For one thing, no one cares anymore. Everyone's gay on TV.)

I'm more doubtful about Sharon Osbourne, but maybe that's because the MTV show, for me, went quickly from fascinatingly bizarre to just a lot mumbling meandering. And dog-poop jokes get old pretty quick.

NATPE's a week away and is now a smaller, more desperate parade of show ideas and retreads. But Dick Robertson is passionate about the business if maybe even a bullying force in the syndication business. But he doesn't pretend to be otherwise or to sugar-coat syndies' strengths and weaknesses.

If the Osbourne and DeGeneres shows are hits, he will have accomplished something. In the past decade, the success rate of programs in first-run syndication has been 17%, just about as bad as the networks in prime time, except that prime time gives itself more tries at the plate. If Warner Bros. syndication does better than some, Robertson recognizes that some of it is luck and some of it is clout. And some of it is going a different route. "In the valley of the blind," he said almost proudly, "you know, the one-eyed is king."

Bednarski may be reached at pbednarski@reedbusiness.com

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