Syndicators still see stars

John Walsh is latest big name attached to a new syndicated show

With names like Roseanne, Martin Short, Donny and Marie, and Howie Mandel failing to translate into big numbers in syndication, perhaps syndicators shouldn't still have stars in their eyes. But, with Cybill Shepherd, Caroline Rhea, Leeza Gibbons and Brian Dennehy slated for series (and that was just one week's worth of announcements), they clearly still do.

America's Most Wanted veteran John Walsh has just added his name to the list of upcoming high-profile efforts for 2001. Sources confirm that he is in preliminary negotiations to head up an hour-long, single-issue strip along the lines of Donahue.

This re-embracing of Hollywood isn't a failure to get the message, say observers, but an attempt to refine the strategy.

"Syndicators know better now," says Petry Television's Dick Kurlander. "We've worked ourselves away from just throwing a celebrity up against a wall and expecting it to stick without having some degree of knowledge of what that person is going to do."

Kurlander sees Martin Short as the "ultimate example" of studios' leaping before they look. "Why would someone heavily involved in sketch comedy translate to daytime talk shows?"

One common vein running through several of the new entries is that the stars were attached to shows with formats that were, for the most part, already in place.

Studios USA nabbed Dennehy for the largely fine-tuned Arrest and Trial, Gibbons will step into the going-on-seven-seasons Extra, and Shepherd was added late in the game (as a replacement for Eleanor Mondale) to Columbia Tri-Star's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Rhea is still in talks to head up a talk series for Paramount-owned Big Ticket Television for 2001.

In contrast, studio executives behind the crop of failed or faltering syndicated series "got caught up in the belief that, because Rosie O'Donnell was successful, so will other stars. But it doesn't happen that way," says Katz Media's Bill Carroll.

Hoping to avoid past pitfalls, Walsh's untitled project will expand on America's Most Wanted's regular "survival school" feature, which provides solutions to real-life, dangerous circumstances. The show is being pitched to Telepictures, Buena Vista and Columbia, among others.

Established storylines aside, "a recognizable name helps in all forms of entertainment," says Carroll. "How do you think they open movies? Or how do they decide who gets to appear on Broadway?"

Still, a diva mentality (or the masculine equivalent thereof) can derail projects.

"The biggest problem that we've seen over the years is that, if you hire a big-name talent to do a talk show and then also let them be executive producer, that's the kiss of death, usually," says Kurlander. "A star can certainly have a vital role on the show [àla Gibbons' executive- consulting gig on Extra], but, when they have total control, it's usually a disaster."