Window of opportunity

Studios turn to cable to support struggling action shows

You could argue it's time to take the word "action" out of the phrase "action genre."

Besides just general year-to-year rating slippage for several of the shows, high-profile series Baywatch and Xena are leaving after this season, and Pearson's NATPE-hyped projects, Lean Angle and Colosseum, never made it onto the air.

However, several distributors, Tribune Entertainment, Studios USA Domestic Television and Lions Gate/Mercury Entertainment among them, see vitality in their respective action efforts.

Increasingly, though, studios are forced to creatively finance their first-run dramas, nabbing extra distribution windows on cable networks. This can add $250,000 to $500,000 in per-episode license fees for these hours.

Apparently, Tracker, set to launch on many Chris-Craft stations this fall, is in advanced talks with a couple of cable networks. And in present syndication/cable examples, Studios USA's Invisible Man also airs on Sci-Fi, MGM's Stargate SG-1 also runs on Showtime, and Promark's fall 2001 freshman The Adventures of Jules Verne was previously on Sci-Fi.

The extra money can certainly help many of these series' 2.0-level national Nielsen averages, which is the kind of number that arguably can't churn out enough domestic barter-advertising revenue to support the shows' typical $1 million-plus per-episode production price tag.

But is it really worth it to distributors to put a hand in the cable pot?

"The con in all this is that you're in essence pre-selling the back-end, says Ira Bernstein, chief of Mercury Entertainment, which makes Tracker. "If you find you have a big hit on your hands, but you've sold it already to something like USA, it's unlikely that Turner, Lifetime or any of those guys will pay anything for it."

Selling the repeat episodes of action hours is key because, just like network series, this is how studios really start seeing a profit. Moreover, this is where the action-hour genre can have a leg up on other syndicated arenas, like talk and game, where a second selling cycle has never been established.

However, Steve Rosenberg, Studios USA's domestic syndication chief, "thinks it's just the opposite" of what Bernstein believes, because, with a cable window, "you're actually driving more audience to your show and the most successful shows in the back-end have been those that have had their largest audience in their first cycle."

Currently, Invisible Man doesn't have a New York station clearance, but Rosenberg thinks its dual play on Sci-Fi will soon correct that situation, "since we're now selling a show that's already been established."

Tribune's syndication CEO, Dick Askin, sees possibilities in MGM's model for Stargate, keeping its show valuable to both broadcast stations and Showtime by separating the episodes between the outlets. Stargate's fifth season starts in June on cable. Its fourth season in syndication revs up in September.

"Everyone is trying to figure out a way to mitigate as much risk as they can. How much money can you pull with a 2.0 rating?" asks Bernstein. "Maybe that's $200,000 in round numbers. Then you say, that's a little skimpy, but I'd breathe easier if I had a cable window."

And stations don't seem to mind that their rights to such shows aren't completely exclusive because, "if stations are looking at continuing to have high-quality, first-run production offered on a barter-only basis, they are going to have to resign themselves to it," says Katz TV's Bill Carroll. "I think it's going to become more commonplace if it isn't already."