Stations Play the Delay Game

Late rollout of strips at NATPE means fewer clearances
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Warner Bros., NBC Universal and Twentieth Television all rolled out new first-run weekday strips for fall at the last minute prior to the start of January's National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) confab. But unlike in previous late-breaking selling seasons, the newly minted group deals with Fox and Tribune failed to ignite spontaneous sales combustion at the convention, or even much in the way of significant post-conference sales.

Instead, station groups in other markets chose to put off their buying decisions, forcing syndicators to leave NATPE with not many more clearances to announce than when they had arrived.

While the four new strips from the big studios are expected to find homes and get national launches this fall, questions remain about whether the anomaly in the selling process this year is an exception or points to a fundamental shift.

An NBCU spokesman says it is not unusual for last-minute entries to take time to gather momentum. The syndicator arrived at NATPE with a talker hosted by Jerry Springer muscle man Steve Wilkos cleared on Tribune and most Sinclair stations, giving it more than 50% coverage. There have been no new clearance announcements since.

A new magazine show from Warner Bros. left NATPE with just the Fox stations announced, putting it at about 45% coverage. To boost clearances and keep red ink down initially, Warner Bros. will likely look to reduce costs and enhance revenues for the ambitious and expensive show. A way would be to share resources with Warner Bros.' other magazine, Extra, and exploit sister AOL's TMZ Website.

“We announced our Fox deal for TMZ on the eve of NATPE and are now in the process of clearing it around the country,” says Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution (WBDTD). “We're getting a lot of interest.”

Twentieth's game show Temptation began NATPE with 25% coverage on Fox duopoly stations and left with 45%, looking for other half-hours to match it with on station schedules. And its slow rollout of chat fest The Morning Show With Mike & Juliet, which began recently on Fox and a handful of other stations, could soon be at 70% for fall, according to Twentieth President Bob Cook.

Smaller Station Groups Out of the Loop?

While buyers and sellers chalk up the sluggishness to market conditions, studios entered NATPE with shows that, until a week or two prior, had been seen as long shots for fall, discussed in detail with only Fox, Tribune and, in the case of Wilkos, Sinclair.

That, in turn, has reinforced longtime complaints from smaller and midsize station groups about how Hollywood studios ignore their programming needs in favor of those owning outlets in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

In past last-minute selling seasons, syndicators had reached out to a few key players beyond the top markets as early as November or December with informal presentations. That allowed them to arrive at NATPE with a couple of significant deals, so that they could increase initial clearance levels by the end of the multiday sales conference.

The majors' offering the impression that their shows had gained momentum during NATPE and often declaring “firm goes” for new projects there would encourage other stations to jump on the bandwagon. But some of those firm deals later grew soft, failing to materialize in production commitments. This year, there were no such proclamations.

The spate of 11th-hour show announcements included a couple of smaller independents. Among them was Program Partners (whose Merv Griffin game show Let's Play Crosswords at press time was closing in on a group deal with the NBC stations). They sent stations scrambling to revise annual programming budgets, which had been set in advance for the non–political-advertising year.

Game shows, in particular, gave station executives fits. At one point last summer, as many as eight new programs had been discussed. By fall, that list was down to one. “Then, these [new] shows are announced, and, on the Friday before NATPE, we get a call asking us to drop by a hotel suite on Sunday to meet Merv, who will be there pitching a new game show,” says one group executive.

Why the delay?

The hemming and hawing by studios to commit to new shows until January stems from many factors, including the inability of most programmers to get strong time periods and ratings needed for success, as well as such issues as timing and finding the right talent and producers.

Further industry consolidation over the past year may have also played a role. Some executives point to the decision by syndication leader CBS Television Distribution (CTD—formerly King World and Paramount Domestic Television) to forgo new first-run programming for fall, which left the market without a key driver.

Twentieth's Cook, addressing the industry as a whole, says, “The marketplace has a little different feel and flavor to it this year.” He attributes it to syndicators' grappling with high failure rates for shows and increased competition posed by electronic gaming and the Web, among others.