Everyone was shocked when Studios USA Domestic Television's (SUDT) chief, Steve Rosenberg, said he was pulling the plug on Xena: Warrior Princess
this season, even while it's still a top-rated syndicated weekly hour. But Rosenberg insists the move, while upsetting to some, is part of a larger plan to ultimately strengthen SUDT's position within the syndication business.
Up against a tightening market for action hours and with stations' ratings-ready time periods increasingly getting eaten up by network prime time programming, SUDT is having to adjust how it delivers its content.
"What happened with Xena
is sad on a number of levels. The show has been great for our company," acknowledges Rosenberg, who also recently revealed that the future of current SUDT action hour Cleopatra 2525
is unclear. "It's all about getting the right [distribution] platform. When you look at the first-run, once-a-week business, [available time slots] are all over the map. There's not a commitment in prime time that Xena
and others like her enjoyed when they first came out. Believe me, if those opportunities were available, we'd go forward to a much greater degree."
SUDT is currently pioneering the "dual-platforming" strategy of launching shows in syndication that will concurrently run on co-owned cable channels USA and Sci Fi. Rosenberg says this will help Studios USA, which doesn't have the luxury of a built-in station group, to beef up exposure for shows like Crossing Over with John Edward, which now airs on Sci Fi, and will debut in syndication in fall 2001. There's also Invisible Man, a weekly action hour, that launched this season simultaneously on Sci Fi and in syndication.
"Dual-platforming seems to be unique to our studio, but I just don't believe it always will be, especially with the success Invisible Man
is having growing in cable and in syndication," says Rosenberg. "When people started selling double runs of shows, stations were convinced that you'd hurt its initial run, but now we know that's not what happens at all. It just raises the level of awareness of shows."
Many distributors grab further syndication revenues when selling their shows overseas. But under USA's February 1998 arrangement with Seagram (when USA's Diller purchased many of the liquor giant's TV properties under subsidiary Universal Television), Universal now gains from international sales of SUDT series including Jerry Springer, Maury, and Sally, while SUDT reaps the benefits from domestic sales.
One downside to sharing distribution with cable is that the fates of certain shows aren't entirely up to SUDT. When USA decided to cancel its relationship-programming block late last year, the ax fell on SUDT production Lover or Loser, fall 2000's first official syndication casualty.
"If you looked at Lover or Loser
as a syndication play, it was showing growth. Stations were happy with it. It was a good enough show to get renewed," Rosenberg maintains. "But we never sold it wide in syndication because its original play was on USA."
Rosenberg learned from that experience, and insists that "now we may push to get the syndication part to be the driver (under further dual-platforming efforts), getting wider distribution in syndication, like we believe we will with Crossing Over with John Edward." He points out John Edward, a psychic who communicates the thoughts of dead relatives' to family members, is a treasured hit at Sci Fi, and not likely to go away anytime soon.
But SUDT isn't giving up on straight syndication. This season it is firing up Dick Wolf-produced Arrest & Trial
on broadcast stations. It's one of the better reviewed freshman first-run efforts. While not a breakout hit, Arrest & Trial
nevertheless is one of the higher-rated rookie strips.
"We put something on the screen that we are very, very proud of," he says. "It's going to take time to build. But we're pleased it's doing this well in an environment where it's so tough to get noticed with first-run shows."
SUDT is intent on maintaining the "well-being" of syndicated talkers Jerry Springer, Maury
and Sally. Jerry's
ratings are down from its extreme rough-and-tumble days in 1999, but this season the studio introduced the reality-esque Springer-cam to attract audiences by catching guests in compromising positions. And Maury
is on the upswing.