First-Run Development Heats Up

Prospects look good for new series in 2008

After a few years marked by lackluster development, syndicators are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for new first-run series.

Development activity for fall 2008 has heated up amid predictions of record spending on political ads, buzz about new talent, and recent shifts in the station landscape. Although the major suppliers have yet to make any pitches to top-market station buyers or greenlight any pilots, they see plenty of hopeful signs.

Among them are the forecasts for a lucrative election season, with the first presidential free-for-all in more than 50 years. Syndicators hope the expected revenue windfall will inspire stations to spend more on programming. And with the digital-television conversion scheduled for early 2009, stations will soon have a greater number of channels to fill.

Moreover, the possibility that controversial View panelist Rosie O'Donnell could strike out on her own has industry executives believing a solo Rosie series could jump-start the market. And though there is no shortage of court shows; a new one with Judge Larry Seidlin (of Anna Nicole Smith fame) is currently making the rounds.

Syndicators also see the recent sale of Tribune Co., along with Fox Television Stations' plans for its MyNetworkTV (MNT) affiliates, as opportunities to supply station groups likely to step up their program buying next year.

Although Tribune Broadcasting will replace Sony's Greg Behrendt with NBC Universal's new Steve Wilkos talk show in daytime, the station group has steered clear of buying any other fresh daytime or early-fringe fare since the lengthy sales process began.

And syndicators are waiting to learn more about new owner Sam Zell's plans for Tribune if the sale receives regulatory approval.

Meanwhile, Fox has been looking to strengthen its duopoly MyNetworkTV (MNT) affiliates in top markets, such as at WWOR New York and KCOP Los Angeles, with shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The NBCU series will run as a late-night weekday strip this fall.

Between its MNT stations and its O&Os—which primarily run news, court and information programs, such as Warner Bros. upcoming magazine TMZ—Fox will have to fill 20 hours per day.

“If everything we have done for fall '07 works, we would still be in the market for new first-run,” says Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for the Fox Television Stations. “On the MyNetworkTV side, we are confident that we will have more first-run than ever before, which will be complemented by the off-net acquisitions we've made. In some cases, that might include moving stuff over from the Fox side.”

Still, with the high failure rates, plummeting ratings and poor economics, syndicators remain hesitant to risk investing in new first-run shows. Program prices have dropped since 2000, when Fox acquired the Chris-Craft station group and effectively eliminated a significant, non-network station buyer from the market.

Some major sellers say they won't be knocking down Fox's door with new program pitches unless it is willing to step up for big-ticket series. Its sole duopoly acquisition for fall 2008 has been Debmar-Mercury's new first-run Tyler Perry comedy strip House of Payne.

But John Nogawski, president/COO of the CBS Television Distribution Group, is among those who are cautiously optimistic about a general rebound: “Next year could become a year where good development meets market needs.”