Weekly syndicated hours, led by Paramount's Star Trek: The Next Generation,
once constituted a profitable business full of popular shows. But, without a strong international market to back studios up and with fewer places to put such shows, syndicators are looking for more-economical ways to serve the market.
For one thing, they are creating fewer original one-hour programs. This year, only four weekly hours were in evidence at the National Association of Television Programming Executives' annual conference in New Orleans.
Two were original reality-based programs (Paramount's Unexplained Mysteries
and Western International's The Talent Agency), two were off-net (Twentieth's Angel
and Sony's off-cable Walker, Texas Ranger). There were no original scripted shows, like the Star Trek
that stations have seen in years past. Tribune Entertainment has one such show in development for 2004.
Also, syndicators are taking shows off cable and selling them to stations. For example, Paramount Domestic Television, through a business arrangement with The Heritage Networks, is selling one-time Showtime series Resurrection Blvd.
to stations for this fall. And Sony Pictures Television is selling Walker, Texas Ranger
for weekends next fall. Walker was a hit on CBS from 1993 to 2001. USA Networks still runs it as often as three times a day, having paid $725,000 an episode in 1996.
In general, syndicators have grown more comfortable with cable. Many of them are developing original scripted product specifically for cable, such as Sony's The Shield
for FX, and stations are getting used to the idea that off-network shows will simultaneously air on cable.
It also makes sense for studios to produce programming for prime time on cable. With a dearth of independent television stations, there is very little prime time space left on TV stations for syndicated fare.
"In order for weekly shows to survive, they really need the prime time clearances to generate the kind of ratings that they were looking for," says Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, at Katz Television Group. "As those new networks [The WB and UPN] came on, they eliminated those spots."
Fortunately, basic cable is getting more and more hungry for original fare, thanks to the success of The Shield, Lifetime's original programming, Sci Fi's Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Taken
and USA's The Dead Zone.
This fall, Twentieth Television will launch The WB's Angel
into syndication, and the first deal it announced was with TNT, most likely for its "prime time in the daytime" block, which features off-net hours Charmed, The X-Files
and Law & Order.
"We've generally approached the off-net–hour business as a cable sale to be made simultaneously with a weekend-broadcast sale," says Bob Cook, president and COO of Twentieth Television. And, if the cable network is very interested in an off-net show, it will usually make it worth the syndicator's while by paying much steeper license fees to secure exclusivity.
Tribune Entertainment remains the most prolific creator of action hours, producing Andromeda, Mutant X
and Adventure Inc. While Andromeda
and Mutant X
have been assured a fourth and third season, respectively, rookie Adventure Inc.
had a slow start, and its future is in question, says Tribune Entertainment President Dick Askin.
Tribune has come up with an economical way to keep some of its weekly hours in circulation—and generate advertising revenue for the syndicator and its stations—without having to produce new episodes. Beastmaster
is out of production, but Tribune has put together a package of the show's 52 best episodes (out of 66) that stations are airing this year and plan to air next year. The stations get a better ratio on the barter split: seven minutes per episode, with seven minutes going to the syndicator, as opposed to the six local/eight national split the stations agreed to when the show was all-original.
As a result of the changing markets, studios such as Tribune have found other ways to make money. By converting its Hollywood studio into an all-digital, state-of-the-art facility, Tribune has brought in a lot of business from other syndicators that need a place to shoot.