The syndication strike breaker

If new shows fall victim to work stoppages, reruns could get a break with ad buyers

Is syndication the strike-proof, economy-proof buy for fall 2001? That's how top Hollywood syndicators are positioning themselves heading into the upfronts, which could break on the syndication side as early as this week.

While most TV executives are predicting a tough advertising market, with the double whammy of a poor economy and the threat of strikes in Hollywood, syndicators are looking to use the unusual set of circumstances to their advantage.

"We are forecasting that the business will be up," says Allison Bodenmann, the president of the Syndicated Network Television Association, which represents nine of the top syndication studios to advertisers. "Even with the sluggish economy, it makes a lot of sense for an advertiser to say, 'Okay, what's the best way to spend my money?' Syndication is the best value. It's the efficient buy relative to other alternatives."

In terms of potential crippling strikes by the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild, syndicators say they have the answer to those worries, as well.

"Our programming is strike-proof," says Bo Argentino, executive vice president of advertiser sales, Columbia TriStar Television. "If you start with the off-net sitcoms, they are repeat programming, and they are all in the can, and, of course, Columbia has a number of those for next year, as do a lot of our competitors. The first-run product is produced and finished for next year or will be finished in time for an entire season of production, and then court shows, talk shows and game shows are not affected by the strike."

Tribune Entertainment's Clark Morehouse says, "Nothing we have is affected by any potential WGA or SAG strikes, and we have made a big issue of that. It's going to be a tough year; no one would deny that. But if there is any competitive advantage for us, we are not struggling to find a B schedule to our A game. We have one offering for the fall, and it's our best foot forward."

But that's not exactly how the advertising community is looking at syndication in these turbulent times. A number of advertisers and media buyers say syndication may actually get hurt this year, with decreases and not increases in ad rates.

"Maybe it's a benefit, but in my mind I don't know if there is a need in this economy for buying upfront syndication," says Howard Nass, senior vice president and director of local broadcast at TN Media. "In this economic environment, rushing to syndication is not going to be a high-priority. I have looked at all of them [first-run and off-net syndicated shows], and I'm not jumping up and down about any of them."

One top media buyer who wishes to remain anonymous says that syndicators are going to have a hard time selling their wares because of the economy. "They may think they have an edge, but there will be so many fewer dollars out there, and a lot of the clients we work with say they are going with the networks anyway."

Last year, syndication reaped a record $2.4 billion in upfront advertising sales, according to SNTA figures. The industry also took in another $3 billion in barter-ad sales and an unspecified amount of scatter revenue. For the 2001-2002 season, it is unclear whether advertisers will be able to match last year's efforts.

"Overall, I think syndication is going to be up single digits; it's certainly not going to be double-digits, but it's definitely not going to be down," predicts Universal Worldwide Television's Matt Cooperstein. "I'm very confident in our two big shows, Blind Date and Fifth Wheel, doing very well in the marketplace."

Not everyone is so confident, however. "I'm hearing between 5% and 10% off," says one top syndication executive. "Anytime you've got ambiguity in the marketplace, people get scared. Pulling advertising dollars is 100% dollars saved off your bottom line. And if you need to create a positive impact on your balance sheet, cutting advertising is an easy way to do it."

Another high-ranking syndication executive predicts similar decreases and says advertisers have been forced to pay some "pretty stiff" increases over the last three or four years. "I think some of that will catch up with us this year," says the executive. "Shows in demand will hold up; low-rated stuff and some unproven new programs might be in for a dogfight."

Bodenmann says she doesn't make predictions on the marketplace but adds that syndication didn't have the ad-rate increases that network TV got from the influx of Internet dollars a year ago. Syndication basically missed the Internet riches, receiving ad dollars from only AOL, Intel and a few other top tech firms a year ago.

Judge Judy and all of her followers were the talk of the syndication upfront last year; this spring there are plenty of new half-hour relationship shows from which to choose. Besides Universal's Fifth Wheel, there is Elimidate (Telepictures), Rendez-View (Paramount), Talk or Walk (Tribune), Cheaters (Western) and Shipmates (Columbia TriStar). On the talk front, there is The Ananda Lewis Show (King World), Iyanla (Buena Vista) and The Other Half (NBC). There are a handful of freshman game shows, including a remake of Card Sharks from Pearson, a new movie-review series in Hot Ticket (Paramount) and the unique Crossing Over With John Edwards (Studios USA).

In terms of new action-hours, a number of shows have backed out since NATPE, but still on course for the fall are Mutant-X, Tracker and The Adventures of Jules Verne. Studio executives say, because of the threat of strikes, the majority of new and returning action series have pushed up production schedules and most will have plenty of episodes ready for the fall-strike or no strike.

On the off-network front, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Steve Harvey Show and Just Shoot Me are heading into syndication for the first time this fall—joining the likes of Seinfeld, Friends and Spin City in the rerun game.

"There are plenty of shows to choose from in syndication, whether first-run or off-net and again, in an iffy economy, advertisers would be wise to spend their dollars in syndication," Bodenmann maintains.