Syndicators are hustling to get a flurry of first-run shows on the air come fall 2008.
Major and independent studios have plenty in development as they circle time slots currently occupied by lower-rated or aging syndicated shows.
While no distributors would confirm the departures of any shows, producers pushing new programs are hoping to convince stations to drop double-runs and low-rated fare, and take a chance on something new.
“I think stations have been too conservative over the last couple of years,” says Rick Feldman, president of the Los Angeles-based National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE), which sponsors the annual program fair that will be held Jan. 28-31 in Las Vegas. “Now we've got some different people in the business who have different relationships. Maybe they are willing to take a little more risk. I think it's cyclical and an issue of timing.”
That has not been the case in the last several years, when few new shows have emerged from NATPE, and certainly nothing that seemed to resemble a sure-fire hit.
This year could be different. What's more, while the writers' strike threatens late-night, primetime and daytime scripted programming, it will have virtually no effect on syndication. That presents studios with an opportunity to get more of their syndicated product on the air if stations and networks are looking for ways to freshen their lineups with limited selection.
“We are encouraged that there are several offerings for affiliates,” says Emerson Coleman, vice president of programming for Hearst-Argyle Television. The nation's 10th largest TV group owner, Hearst-Argyle already has picked up The Doctors, The Bonnie Hunt Show and Deal or No Deal in many of its markets.
“It's good, healthy and it reinvigorates our stations,” Coleman says. “The fact that there are several different options bodes well for the future.”
As the fall 2008 syndication slate takes shape, several trends are emerging.
Syndie's Got Game
With game shows popping in prime and Drew Carey making a double splash as the new host of CBS' Price Is Right and Power of Ten, syndicators are all about bringing back the game. Games appeal to both stations and syndicators because they work well in blocks, are cheap to produce and lend themselves well to interactivity.
Fall's biggest game launch will be NBC Universal's Deal or No Deal, produced both in prime and daytime by largely the same staff. The show already is cleared in almost half the country and on nine of NBC's largest stations—including NBC stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The show, hosted by Howie Mandel, also is cleared on stations in the CBS, Allbritton, E.W. Scripps and Sinclair groups.
Deal's daytime version, produced by the American arm of Dutch production company Endemol, which sells the format to television outlets in many countries, will be more similar “to how the game is played throughout the rest of the world,” says Linda Finnell, senior vice president of development and programming for NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution.
On the primetime version of Deal, 26 stunning models hold cases that include various amounts of money, from which contestants must select. A behind-the- scenes banker then tries to tempt them with deals that encourage them to take the money and run.
In the international version of the show, the contestants hold the cases. The daytime version also will have the contestants holding the cases, but the models will remain, says Finnell: “The models are huge. They are an important part of the show's success.”
Deal will be running as a half-hour show with no double runs. Daytime shows tend to perform better if they air in genre-related blocks, so syndicators are looking for suitable companions to pair with the show.
One choice will be Trivial Pursuit: America Plays, sold by upstart Debmar-Mercury, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lionsgate. The company said in October that it would be selling a show based on the board-game standard.
“We believe the syndication marketplace has room and need for a few more game shows,” says Mort Marcus, Debmar-Mercury's co-founder and co-president. “We wanted to bring out a game that already had name recognition so its chances of being sampled are much greater.”
Game maker Hasbro is co-financing the show and its national marketing campaign in a first-of-its-kind deal. Wheeler-Sussman, which also produces Twentieth's Judge Alex, will produce.
Beyond Trivial Pursuit's widespread name recognition, Marcus thinks the “America Plays” feature is what will help the show catch on. Viewers will write and submit their video questions, a la YouTube, to their local station Website. Submissions will be eligible to win money if they are selected to air on the show and if they stump a contestant. Beyond that, the partners are working on other ways to involve station Websites.
Observers expect other game-show entries to pop up prior to NATPE. Sources say Twentieth and Warner Bros. both are developing game shows for fall. And both Twentieth and Sony are prepping daytime versions of popular primetime games for 2009, with Sony looking at Power of Ten and Twentieth considering Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
Besides games, syndicators are trying to capitalize on women's ongoing interest in staying healthy. It hasn't gone unnoticed that telegenic cardiologist Dr. Mehmet Oz pops a high Nielsen number every time he appears on CBS' The Oprah Winfrey Show, say syndicators. And local TV newscasts and the morning national news programs already spend a good deal of time on the health-related stories that daytime's core demographic of 25-to-54-year-old women find interesting.
CBS' entry this year, The Doctors, exemplifies this trend, while Warner Bros. says Bonnie Hunt—a nurse before she acted, wrote, directed and produced—will address health topics on her new show. And viewers can expect Oprah, Phil, Rachael Ray and other talkers to keep talking about health.
The Doctors, spun off from CBS' Dr. Phil, features a panel of five actual doctors, one of whom is Dr. Travis Stork from ABC's The Bachelor. Other doctors include a gynecologist, a plastic surgeon, a pediatrician and a marriage and family therapist.
The producing team at Dr. Phil—led by Phil McGraw's son, Jay—is approaching its new show much as Winfrey approached her Dr. Phil spinoff. The doctors have been showing up on McGraw's show throughout the season, so they're already familiar to his audience.
The Doctors is already cleared in 60% of the country, including all top 20 markets. In fact, CBS Television Distribution, which now includes King World, is far enough along with sales that it decided to sit out NATPE.
Talk Out, Hybrids In
The Doctors represents a new kind of show—the hybrid—and CBS isn't the only syndicator trying to figure out how to create a successful new genre.
With talk shows trending downward in the ratings, there are not too many in the pipeline this year. Warner Bros. is even describing its new entry, The Bonnie Hunt Show, as a hybrid, even though it's the closest thing to a talk show on next fall's slate.
“The show's not just going to be all talk and variety,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions. “It's going to have celebs, but there's also going to be a tremendous amount of real and practical information about women's health and other topics. Bonnie's great with kids, she connects well with real people, and she's very relatable. We're going tap into all of that and create a hybrid that has both entertainment value and promotability with celebs.”
Warner Bros. already has cleared The Bonnie Hunt Show in more than half the country, with the NBC-owned stations serving as its launch group.
While there may not be a ton of traditional talkers on syndicators' slates, there are some hybrid shows featuring known talent. Twentieth is developing a strip with Manhattan billionaire Donald Trump called Trump Rules, according to sources. The show will be a sort of Judge Judy meets Dr. Phil, with Trump playing a similar but larger role than he played on NBC's The Apprentice.
“Donald's caught the TV bug,” says one source, and he's pulling out the stops to build a luxurious TV studio for himself in New York.
Twentieth also is working with personality Steve Harvey to create a strip, which the syndicator hopes will have crossover appeal for urban and mainstream audiences. Like Trump, Harvey's show would be shot out of a specially built studio in New York.
While CBS' first-run efforts will be focused on The Doctors, the company also is working with Ashton Kutcher on an entirely new kind of show, called The Tube, which will integrate a comedic host, sketches and funny bits with viral videos. The half-hour show would likely be targeted at late fringe. Similarly, Debmar-Mercury has an off-Internet late-night vehicle for former MTV talent Tom Green.
And Sony is considering turning its successful Internet series The 9, which airs on Yahoo TV and is sponsored by Pepsi, into a VH-1-inspired entertainment magazine in which adorable host Maria Sansone each day recollects nine fun pop-culture moments. The show lasts only a few minutes on Yahoo; it would be expanded for syndication.
While the major studios scramble to figure out what will work for stations, two station groups are taking matters into their own hands.
Meredith Broadcasting is bringing its hour-long morning talk show Better TV to NATPE this year in hopes of gaining national distribution. The show—which draws on female-friendly content found in the group's magazines, especially Better Home and Gardens—already airs on 12 of Meredith's stations as well as three Journal Broadcast stations.
The company is trying to capitalize on its magazine content on several platforms. It launched an accompanying broadband network, www.better.tv, in April, and will begin offering a family-focused suite of programming called Parents TV on Comcast's video-on-demand service in December.
Better TV is shot in Portland, Ore., and New York, but all the Meredith stations can contribute content. For example, the Las Vegas station, KVVU, recently interviewed actor/producer Ben Affleck, and the piece showed up later on Better TV.
The beauty of the show, says Meredith Broadcasting Group President Paul Karpowicz, is its focus on all things local. Stations rename the show to better fit their own markets, with titles such as Better Connecticut or Better Kansas City, and either plug in their own hosts or use the hosts provided by Meredith. In concept, Better TV seems similar to the old PM Magazine, which was a syndication staple in the '70s and also was designed to look homegrown. But only parts of the content were; the rest came from features produced to be seen nationwide. Better TV also has plenty of opportunities to fold in sponsor-supported segments.
“TV stations need to find a way to be hyper-local, and this show gives them that foundation without having to do all the work themselves,” says Karpowicz.
In a similar vein, Hearst-Argyle Broadcasting is developing an hour-long talk show, Conversations With Carlos Watson, which it plans to roll out in September 2009. “We are taking the long view so this can be a franchise that can be around for a long time,” says Hearst-Argyle's Coleman.
Court Still In Session
The court genre is surely saturated, but with court a constant in daytime and several shows possibly going out of circulation, syndicators can't help but cast their gaze at potential jurists. Warner Bros. has a show in the works featuring former judge and district attorney—and Fox News contributor—Jeanine Pirro. But sources say they don't expect Warner Bros. to go forward with Pirro this year now that Bonnie Hunt is largely sold.
And Program Partners is selling half-hour strip Family Court With Judge Penny, featuring Georgia State Judge Penny Brown Reynolds, to TV stations for fall 2008. The show will be produced by 44 Blue Productions, which also produces Split Ends for the Style Network and prison documentary series Lockup for MSNBC.
The distributors say they decided to pick up the show based on the strength of the judge: “When she walks into a room, everybody notices. She commands attention,” says Josh Raphaelson, Program Partners' co-principal. “She deals with these life-and-death issues with great authenticity, and when we saw her on camera, we instantly knew she could carry a TV show.”
“We are always on the lookout for strong talent we think could work in daytime,” says Stephanie Drachkovitch, executive vice president of 44 Blue. “We weren't combing the planet for a judge, but Judge Penny has such a unique voice and strong presence. She doesn't feel like anyone else on the air right now. She possesses qualities that made us think we could build a franchise around her.”
Sony is considering throwing one more court show into the mix, with a program featuring Judge Karen Mills-Francis, an African-American jurist from Miami. And Radar Entertainment, which has tried to launch Jury Duty this season to little ratings success, is developing Star Witness, featuring Court TV's Rikki Klieman. Besides her work as a legal commentator and analyst, Klieman has appeared as an actress on shows such as NBC's Las Vegas and ABC's NYPD Blue.
All syndicators will admit that their business is challenged, but they hope that different tactics will yield different results.
Says Drachkovitch, who headed development at Telepictures and Buena Vista, now Disney-ABC, before joining her husband, Rasha, at 44 Blue: “There are ways to find opportunity if you just look at it differently. It ain't always easy, but if you are creative about how you approach it, it can be done. To give up on it would be silly. Stations always want programming, and there are always new viewers.”