Syndies turning to cable

Syndicators in a pinch to place first-run series discover a basic market

With stations increasingly scared to pick up new first-run series, syndicators might find a needle in a haystack before landing a hit on broadcast homes they've traditionally turned to. So, looking to survive themselves, distributors that once feasted on syndication are selling more and more first-run product to cable outlets.

True, syndicators can pocket more money with a first-run strip on broadcast stations if its ratings are high enough. That's because barter-advertising revenue will add up more impressively than a flat fee from a cable network. But economics are making syndicators look at cable with a new calculator.

"Traditionally, syndication has always been more profitable. But now, you're looking at a ledger sheet, and you'll say this is getting awfully close to cable dollars," says Studios USA Domestic Television President Steve Rosenberg. Studios USA will debut Crossing Over With John Edward in syndication, concurrent with its run on the Sci-Fi Network.

Buena Vista Television produced Comedy Central's Win Ben Stein's Money and a new one-hour reality special/potential series for USA, Aphrodite Jones.

Columbia TriStar Television Distribution, which hasn't officially secured top-market homes for its fall 2001 strip Shipmates
and is scrambling for viewers for Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, can boast TBS' and Lifetime's highest-rated series, Ripley's Believe It or Not! and Strong Medicine, respectively.

Tellingly, Ed Wilson signed on to NBC Enterprises not only to kick-start its in-house syndication division but also to launch its cable production unit. He isn't ready to disclose specific cable plans, but sources indicate that he talked to just as many cable executives as station executives in his debut at NATPE as a top-level NBC hire.

"If we have 15 good ideas for cable, hopefully, we'll do 15. If we have 15 good ideas for syndication, we know we won't do 15 because the marketplace just can't absorb it."

He knows he would be crazy not to cozy up to cable-targets apparently include USA, TNN, TNT and A & E (part owned by NBC). Because, while weblets like The WB and UPN eat up programming space on stations, many re-emerging cable networks like suddenly WWF-less USA and now twang-less TNN, a unit of Viacom, need fresh programming.

Plus, stations, threatened by a soft ad market, are becoming skittish over shelling out license fees for shows that seem to fail a lot more than they succeed.

King World's new programming chief Steve Nalevansky and Twentieth Television President Bob Cook have revealed plans to go after the cable market in the near future.

USA's new chief Doug Herzog says, "Look, a syndicated smash is going to make you a lot of money, whereas cable remains to be seen what kind of revenues it will draw. But to sell a show on cable vs. not selling it at'll still take that." In other words, he continues, "if the KGB made a great show, I would want to have it."

Herzog will "absolutely" be talking to Wilson and traditional syndicators. Scoring an identifying original series, says Herzog "is our main focus. It's job one right now.I can't afford to overlook any supplier."

It's the same story for Kelly Goode Abugov, Lifetime's senior vice president of programming, who insists that, when she bought Strong Medicine, now Lifetime's highest-rated series, it didn't matter that it came from Columbia TriStar Television Distribution, known primarily as Sony's syndication arm. "We thought that it was a really strong show."

Even though NBC's Wilson is blessed with automatic 60% clearance levels for any syndicated programming he rolls out, thanks to NBC Enterprises' recent alliance with the NBC O & Os and the Gannett and Hearst-Argyle station groups, Wilson nevertheless feels the pinch on producing first-run programming.

"Caroline Rhea shows you the difficulty," he says, referring to Paramount's decision to yank its Caroline talk effort after getting lightweight license fee offers from stations.

However, "there is a big need from cable networks to come up with distinctive programming," says Scott Sassa, NBC's West Coast president, who initiated the creation of the network's syndication unit.

Sassa maintains that "syndication is our main priority" but still predicts NBC Enterprises will move into the cable arena as soon as next year.

Among other syndicators, USA will premiere in June Buena Vista's Aphrodite Jones, which will follow best-selling true-crime author Aphrodite Jones on the trail of real-life lawbreakers.

Recently, Jones' work became the crux of her bestseller All She Wanted, an exploration into the death of Brandon Teena, which later evolved into the movie Boys Don't Cry.

Buena Vista syndication of the Showtime series Beggars & Choosers has been "one of the most aggressive [syndicators] to pursue first-run production with cable," boasts Janice Marinelli, who heads the division.

Others have gotten with the program. Columbia TriStar is producing Going to California, about a road trip from England to the U.S., and FX comedy pilot Bad News, Mr. Swanson.

Krasnoff, Columbia TriStar's programming and production president, says, "I'm not looking to create any new competitors. So I don't want to go out and tell any of my syndication colleagues anything."