Familiar friends tops in syndie pricing

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TV syndication is one business that isn't a head case this year. Though King World Productions therapist "Dr. Phil" McGraw reigns as a new hit for the industry, the business is clear-headed for program distributors.

Syndication rode the good fortunes of a hot TV advertising market in getting healthy high-single-digit cost per thousand viewer ad-price increases during last June's upfront selling period for the current season.

In overall revenue, syndication climbed 18% to $2 billion during the upfront period, according to Advertising Age. The TV upfront market is where marketers buy an entire year of advertising before the season starts.

Many shows including the perennial leader, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution's "Friends," posted hefty increases. Big price gains also were found with Sony Pictures Television's "Seinfeld," which moved into the No. 2 position just ahead of Paramount Domestic Television's "Entertainment Tonight" among the top 50 syndicated shows ranked by ad price (see chart at right). "Friends" also topped the list last year, followed by "ET" and "Seinfeld."

`Raymond' gains

Most of these top-tier shows received major boosts in unit pricing, including King World's "Everybody Loves Raymond," which soared by 47.2%. Program analysts say "Raymond" improved its time periods to better-rated late-night/evening slots from weaker early fringe.

"In previous years, syndication expanded-with too many shows and too many people selling them," says Doug Seay, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney, New York. "They had a correction."

Advertisers are dealing with fewer sellers and getting better ratings now that some of the major off-network sitcoms are sold by one seller that includes not just syndication airings but cable coverage as well. For instance, "Seinfeld" and Buena Vista Television's "Home Improvement" joined "Friends" this year as sitcoms that have cable coverage (on TBS) included in their overall ratings package to advertisers. This has resulted in paying more for higher ratings.

The bad news is that that all of this makes it harder for some advertisers to do year-to-year unit price comparisons.

"It doesn't necessarily tell you how strong a program is," says Rino Scanzoni, president of U.S. broadcast for WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York. "The ratings that are reported in Nielsen not only reflect the double runs in syndication on broadcast stations, but you are getting the audience delivered by TBS. Ultimately, you can only compare on CPM."

Off-network comedies remain the gold standard of syndication. Sitcoms have increased their domination in syndication among advertisers. Seventeen of the top 25 priced shows are off-network fare. Last year, 13 off-network shows were among the top 25. In both years, the bulk of those off-net leaders were sitcoms.

off-net debuts noticed

Three major off-network shows debuted this year, with two of the three posting strong ratings and unit prices. Top-rated off-net freshman "Will & Grace" from Warner Bros. pulled in more than $104,000 per 30-second spot, making it fifth in overall unit pricing. "That `70s Show," from Twentieth Television, placed a strong sixth, earning more than $82,000 per :30. Twentieth's "Dharma & Greg"-which no longer airs on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC-came in 20th at $36,307.

Top-tier first-run syndication shows also did well. Paramount's "Entertainment Tonight," and King World's "Wheel of Fortune," "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Jeopardy!" all posted double-digit unit price increases over a year ago.

All this is good news for syndication advertising sellers, especially in the currently hot scatter market with program prices 12% to 14% higher than during the upfront. Still, most syndicators typically don't play in the scatter market-many tend to sell virtually all their inventory during the upfront.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Chris Kager, president of MGM-NBC Media Sales Group, decided to take a chance and hold back inventory for the scatter market.

"We felt that the marketplace was going to be strong," he says, "and we were launching a lot of new shows." Most of these programs were unproven efforts, such as the daytime talker "The John Walsh Show." Mr. Walsh is the longtime host of Fox's "America's Most Wanted."

Overall, agency media executives say syndication shows, on a ratings basis, aren't fairing better than TV programs in other venues.

"When syndicated shows wind up with more double runs, more cable [runs], it doesn't necessarily tell you how strong a program is, because there are more telecasts involved," says Mr. Scanzoni. "If you wound up looking at it telecast by telecast, you'd probably see they are going through the same ratings erosion as the networks. It might even be greater."

NATPE revamps conference to draw back syndicators that abandoned exhibition floor in 2002. Go to AdAge.com at QwikFIND aa034t for NATPE's new setup.

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