Syndicators Bet on Game and Court Shows

With costly new talk shows struggling, studios look for cheaper alternatives—and the next 'Deal or No Deal’

Syndicators are playing it safe this development season.

After a fall in which King World’s Rachael Ray has been the only one of four rookie talk shows to average more than a 1.0 household rating, syndicators are turning to game and court shows. And with the phenomenal popularity of NBC primetime game show Deal or No Deal and the relative low cost of the game and court genres, executives are hoping such shows will be a safer bet for the 2007-08 season.

While everyone is looking to mimic the success of Deal, the appetite for yet another gavel-wielding disciplinarian presiding over another court show seems as healthy as ever. Without Judge Judy-level talent, court shows can be made for under $200,000 per week, where entertainment newsmagazines can cost five times that.

“That’s why you see people gravitating toward court over the last couple years and now game shows,” says Twentieth Television President Bob Cook. “It’s lower risk, and if you become huge like Wheel of Fortune or even just a [Who Wants To Be a] Millionaire, that’s not a bad business.”

“It is definitely the year of the game show,” says NBC Universal (NBCU) Syndication President Barry Wallach, whose division is considering a half-hour syndicated adaptation of the hour-long Deal. He won’t confirm that the show is definitely going ahead but says his company is “deliberating as to what the right plans are.”

The linchpin of a syndicated Deal will be the choice of host; Howie Mandel is widely credited for the success of the primetime version. Sources with knowledge of the show’s development say former late-night host Arsenio Hall was originally slated, but he and NBCU have since parted ways. Comic actor Mark Curry has also been in talks with NBC about the job.

The top prize for the syndicated version is expected to be in the neighborhood of $250,000, a quarter of that on the network show.

“We think [a syndicated Deal] would have a good chance,” says Wallach.

But CBS Television Distribution Group CEO Roger King is among those who have their doubts. He says the lower prize money and shorter length will compare unfavorably with the primetime version still on the air.

Deal or No Deal will be a huge bomb” in syndication, he says. “Cutting it down to a half-hour will make it look chintzy.” He notes that CBS once wanted an hour version of Jeopardy! for the network but King refused for fear of hurting the half-hour daytime version.

Meanwhile, a raft of syndicated game shows, both new and retread, are making the rounds:

  • Game-show guru Harry Friedman, who oversees Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, is planning new-format Combination Lock and an update of the old Joker’s Wild with a casino-style set.
  • Merv Griffin is pitching syndicators on a couple of game shows, one of which is a word-scramble format. Griffin and his agents at William Morris have not yet revealed their strategy.
  • Twentieth Television may be considering Catch Phrase and Connections from Granada and Temptations from Fremantle.
  • Fremantle also has been shopping a remake of the enduring Match Game.

While hopeful about the prospects for a syndicated Deal, NBCU’s Wallach warns that creating formats for first-run syndication has a history of failure. “There has never really been a game show invented for syndication that worked,” he says. “They all have come off of network daytime or primetime.”

Whether new formats or adaptations, however, game shows are no guarantee. Since the 1981-82 season, 68 game shows have been launched into syndication; fewer than a quarter of them (16) made it to a second season.

“It is still a hard genre to make work in syndication,” says Telepictures Executive VP Hilary Estes McLaughlin, adding that game-show audiences tend to skew older.

Court shows have been a more bankable syndication favorite. Sony Pictures Television Distribution President John Weiser points out that eight of the 11 court shows currently on the air have endured for at least four years. The two introduced this year—Cristina’s Court and Judge Maria Lopez—may be poised for similarly long runs. Several new shows are in the works to join the already crowded field.

Sony, which launched Lopez this fall, is high on a project featuring Miami Judge David Young. Young is openly gay, but Weiser says that won’t be the show’s hook. “He has a personality that stands out, but we are not selling a gay court show,” he says. “We think that would be offensive.”

Twentieth, which launched Cristina’s Court this year, has considered as many as six judge personalities and is focusing on two. And Telepictures is pondering a “celebrity-jury” format, according to sources with knowledge of development.

Although low costs enable court shows to endure poor ratings, some industry observers wonder whether the genre has been overplayed. All but one veteran court show, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution’s Judge Mathis, are showing year-over-year declines so far this season.

“You could probably say we have enough court shows at this point,” says Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming for Katz Television Group.

Beyond talk of a project at Telepictures, no magazine-based shows are in circulation. And with Rachael Ray, the one successful new personality-driven talk show, averaging only a 2.1 household rating, talk shows likely won’t make the splash they did at last year’s NATPE gathering. “I don’t think you will see a lot of talk,” says NBCU’s Wallach. “I just don’t know if there are a lot of great ideas or talent out there.”

The best chance in this genre may come from Telepictures, which is considering three projects, including two featuring Latina hosts: Latina magazine creator Christy Haubegger and TV reporter Maria Salazar. Former WB chief Garth Ancier is behind the Haubegger show. Survivor creator Mark Burnett is working on a project for hypnotist Paul McKenna.

Buena Vista was also looking at a project for actress Sherri Sheppard. And, as ever, a list of aspiring hosts, including actresses Vivica A. Fox and Patricia Heaton and actress/singer Brandi, is making the rounds.

“There is talent looking for homes,” says Twentieth’s Bob Cook. “But in a high-failure business and with daytime ratings so small, the risk/reward is getting compromised.”


Syndication and NATPE

The first-run syndication business is broken. Stations blame syndicators for ignoring their needs. Syndicators stay stations won't invest in their shows. As talk shows tank, studios turn to cheaper game and court shows. With January's NATPE confab just around the corner, can the system be fixed?