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It's Tough Out There

But syndie rookies hoping to grow 9/26/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

National numbers are out for five of this year's nine new syndicated shows, and there are some good stories to tell. NBC Universal's Deal or No Deal is the highest-rated game show to debut since Disney-ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire in 2002. And CBS's The Doctors is the highest-rated talk show to premiere since CBS's Rachael Ray in 2006.

But overall, premiere numbers still look low. Deal or No Deal opened at a 1.6 live-plus-same-day national household rating while The Doctors came in at a 1.3, Nielsen says. Overall, that puts Deal or No Deal in fourth place among game shows and The Doctors in seventh place among talk shows.

Both shows have high hopes of growing over the next few months. That's possible, as demonstrated by last year's rookie heroes, Warner Bros.' TMZ and Two and a Half Men and Twentieth's Family Guy.

National ratings weren't available for Warner Bros.' Bonnie Hunt, but Sony's Judge Karen opened at a 1.1, respectable for a new court show, while Program Partners' Family Court With Judge Penny premiered at a 0.6.

With fragmentation the rule of the day, every year it gets tougher to score in the ratings. This year it may have been even harder, with major news events dominating cable news and capturing national attention during syndication's key premiere weeks.

On Labor Day, Sept. 1, the nation nervously tracked Hurricane Gustav, which preempted the first day of the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn. Hurricanes Hanna and Ike followed, causing viewership of The Weather Channel to spike 189% among women age 25-54, according to Nielsen. That's daytime television's key demographic.

Likewise, coverage of major events such as the presidential election and Wall Street's financial meltdown has kept viewers' eyes riveted on cable news. CNN has increased viewership among women 25-54 by 115% since last September, Fox News has improved by 129% and MSNBC has spiked 71%.

Meanwhile, in September 2008 basic cable can boast increases of 722,000 viewers among women 25-54, while broadcast network viewing has dropped off by nearly 350,000, a gap of more than one million female viewers. That trend was duplicated in 2004, when the presidential election also was close but not nearly so hotly contested. In September 2004, basic cable was up 14% among women 25-54. Basic cable viewership then fell by 1% in 2005, 6% in 2006 and 3% in 2007. This year, it's back up again, jumping 17%.

Meanwhile, many veteran syndicated shows are demonstrating less resilience in the face of all that competition. Older shows charge higher licenses fees, and when their ratings decline year after year, stations lose interest in renewing them. As a result, syndicators and TV stations are eager to build new syndicated franchises, particularly in daytime.

Among first-run shows, talkers are having the toughest time holding up. In the past five years of premieres, CBS's The Oprah Winfrey Show, still the top talk show in syndication, has fallen 36%. In 2004, Oprah opened its season at a 7.8; this year that number fell to a 5.0, although Oprah's Sept. 8 premiere was preempted in several markets due to unexpected coverage of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament on CBS, which was rained out the previous weekend.

Similarly, ratings for Disney-ABC's Live With Regis and Kelly have fallen 26% over the past five years. NBC Universal's Maury is down 42% and NBCU's Jerry Springer has lost half of its audience, dropping from a 1.8 in 2004 to a 0.9 this year.

Two exceptions are Warner Bros.' Ellen DeGeneres, a relative newcomer in the syndication talk world, and CBS's Dr. Phil. Ellen has held largely steady since 2004, opening that year at a 2.0 and this year at a 2.2, up 10%. CBS's Dr. Phil is also consistent, averaging in the mid-4s, though this year the show's opening week was down substantially due to U.S. Open preemptions.

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