Syndication Gets Its Share of Upfront Heat

Total take is expected to be up 13% over 2002

Syndication got in on the heated upfront TV market, wrapping up most of its deals late last week after just a week of selling. "The sellers are very happy," said Gene DeWitt, president of the Syndicated Television Network Association. "Last year, our goal was to move right after network. That happened, and it took about two weeks to close. This year, it happened again, but it only took a week to close.

"We are being treated as a surrogate for network," he added. "Some advertisers didn't get everything they wanted in network and leapt on syndication, which is just what they should do."

Most believe the total syndication take will be up around 13% over 2002, at $2.3 billion, within spitting distance of the medium's $2.4 billion high-water mark set in 2000. (A few think the final tally could meet or exceed the record.)

This year's upfront also marked an impressive two-year rebound from 2001, when syndication plummeted 25% to $1.7 billion.

Sources say top-tier shows commanded prices similar to those of the broadcast networks, in the 15%-17%-range. Some shows were so hot that syndicators were actually turning away money. Among them: Dr. Phil, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and off-network comedies such as Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, Seinfeld
and Will & Grace.

"The health of the market this year is right across the board," said Chris Kager, president, MGM/NBC Media Sales. "Last year, the growth was in the top-tier product, and the second-tier product was not as healthy."

Bob Riordan, senior vice president, national broadcast, MPG, observed, "Top tier syndicators were very bullish. They were commanding double-digit increases, while the second tier was getting mid- to high-single-digit increases."

But it was all good for the sellers, he said. "There's so much money in the marketplace that everything is moving and everything is selling."

A source with knowledge of King World's action said the distributor had record gross sales of $350 million to $400 million. King World handles Dr. Phil, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Inside Edition, Oprah, Hollywood Squares
and Raymond.

Advertisers moved money that had been earmarked for in-season scatter buys, the syndicators said. "Virtually every agency went to their clients and said, 'Don't be a jerk. The increases in scatter were so enormous this year, put your money upfront,'" said one senior sales executive. "So we were all getting backended money."

The scatter prices for some shows this year in syndication were more than 50% above the upfront rates.

Some executives said they've been getting calls from clients they've already done deals with asking if they can buy more ads. The answer has been yes in some cases and no in others. Some syndicators are holding back inventory on the assumption that scatter market will again be strong and more lucrative.

Kager, who said MGM/NBC wrote about 30% more business than a year ago, said daytime was "exceptionally strong." That boded well for both The John Walsh Show, entering its second season, and newcomers Starting Over
and talkers from Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Osbourne.

Political talker The Chris Matthews Show
was also hot, Kager said. The show tripled its revenue and doubled its client base, he said, noting that, in recent weeks, the program has been running second, behind NBC's Meet The Press,
in the Sunday-morning talking-heads competition.

Of course, some wonder whether all the commitments are going to stick. For now, the expectation is that they will. "Most of it is real because, by the time we get around to the next second and third quarter, the economy will certainly have turned around," said one sales executive. "So whether advertisers think it's real now or not, by then it will be. They will want to spend aggressively to keep pace with the upturn."