According to Electronic Media, there are 25 new first-run shows for the general audience and another 19 for kids and teenagers available at this year's gathering. Those numbers are down from 43 and 24, respectively, at the 1995 gathering.
Yet the irony of this paucity, say some agency media buyers, is that ad placement decisions are easier to make.
"Because there is less of it, it becomes more manageable. As a buyer, there are the shows you want to buy and then there is everything else. And this year, there is less of everything else," says Doug Seay, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Hal Riney & Partners, New York.
A CHANGE FROM BEFORE
Before last year's NATPE confab, a slew of high-level projects were on the market for all dayparts, including Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution's "Rosie O'Donnell Show"; New World's "Access Hollywood" and "Loveline"; MCA's "He Says, She Says"; Paramount Domestic Television's "Real TV"; Multimedia Entertainment's "Pat Bullard"; Maxam Entertainment's "J&I"; Twentieth Television's "Exclusive With Leslie Abramson"; and MGM's "The Bradshaw Difference."
But this year, there's been a drop-off in the number of projects-as well as the hoopla behind them.
Among the first-run strips being offered are Buena Vista Television's "The John Salley Show" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," Twentieth's "Home Team," Worldvision Enterprises' "Pictionary," Tribune Entertainment's "What About You?," All American's "Arthel & Fred" talk show and "Match Game"/"Card Sharks" game show block, and Rysher Entertainment's "Naomi."
The reasons for the drought of 1997 are mixed. Among them: prime time slots are disappearing due to the growth of the WB and UPN networks; production and clearance costs are rising; and hot recent off-network properties like "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons" and "Home Improvement" are swallowing the fringe, especially now that the prime-time access rule has been rescinded.
Or maybe the extant crop is just good enough.
"One of the reasons is that the current shows are working fairly well and there is less need than there has been before" for new product-at least in some dayparts, says Barry Thurston, president of Columbia TriStar.
HAS THE `VIBE'
That said, Mr. Thurston's company is attempting to fill what he describes as "a void in late-night for young adults" with the launch of "Vibe," an entertainment and talk hour produced by Quincy Jones and David Salzman.
Noting that late-night ratings for cable networks such as MTV, Comedy Central and ESPN have been increasing-and that a number of major ad spenders have left the daypart-Mr. Thurston says "Vibe" is going to try "to fill the age gap" left by "The Arsenio Hall Show."
Another programming executive has a simple explanation for the current lack of new syndicated properties: Hollywood may have finally run out of new ideas.
"The various creative wells that exist in our business are a little stagnant right now," says Scott Carlin, exec VP for Warner Bros.
By way of illustration, Warner Bros. had to reach into the past to come up with its sole new NATPE offering. "The People's Court" will return to the air in 1997, albeit without the traditional wisdom of Judge Wapner. Instead, petitioners will be subject to the jurisprudence of former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
Station demand for the half-hour strip has been healthy, Mr. Carlin says, netting "more than 30 calls within a week" of the show's announcement.
`CRYING FOR GOOD IDEAS'
"I don't think they are not bringing them out because there are limited opportunities [for air time] . . . Stations are crying for some good ideas, for some originality," Mr. Carlin says. "There are a lot more opportunities than there are projects to fill them."
Of course, when applied to ideas rather than programs, "new" has long been a relative term in syndicated TV. A successful program inevitably will breed a pack of imitations, as was the case in the heyday of "trash talk" a few years ago. And that same kind of parroting is likely to occur with any other format that proves an ability to gain clearances and ad dollars.
Syndicators "will try to clone what they have, probably with little success," predicts Howard Nass, senior VP-corporate director, spot broadcast, at TN Media, the New York-based media-buying arm of True North Communications.
The expense of clearing syndicated programming is rising at the same time overall ratings are slipping, Mr. Nass says, and that, too, is putting a damper on new projects.
"It's costing more to get a show on the air and you are getting less in terms of ratings. Why take the risk if you are only going to pull a 2?" he asks.
The scarcity of original offerings runs across all dayparts, but it's probably most acute in prime time. With WB and UPN expanding their lineups, available time slots with any kind of market reach are hard to find.
"The lower amount of new programs is a function of there being fewer time periods available," says Rino Scanzoni, exec VP-director of national broadacst for TeleVest, the New York-based media-buying subsidiary of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.
As an example, with production costs for a first-run actionadventure hour near $1 million per episode, "it is increasingly difficult to make these shows economically viable," he says.
The growth of station groups, with subsequent consolidation of power in fewer hands, has made air time particularly dear, notes Mr. Nass.
"Some stations are requiring [syndicators] to buy the time," he says. And since a program needs major market clearances to have any hope of success, "the New York and Los Angeles stations sit there fat as pigs saying `You want to be on, pay me."'
Mr. Nass also attributes the absence of novel programming to the demise of the prime-time access rule. That regulation, struck down last year by the Federal Communications Commission, prohibited network affilates in major markets from airing off-network runs of programs currently on prime-time network schedules.
"With [the rule] going by the wayside, [stations] will be using more off-network programs," Mr. Nass says. "Since that rule fell, it is very, very hard for an independent producer to make a living. It will put some of these guys out of business."
Although these factors may make it more difficult for marginal properties to prosper, buyers see at least one advertiser benefit.
The programs that do make it to air "are being launched with much stronger distribution systems in place," says Steve Grubbs, exec VP-national broadcast buying for BBDO Worldwide, New York. "You are seeing, in some ways, much stronger lineups [and] the more powerful the lineup going in, the more ratings potential there is."
While that "bottom-tier is more efficient for those people who are just buying eyeballs-such as the package-goods companies-people more concerned with programming environments and hard-to-reach demographics are more intrigued with today's marketplace," Mr. Grubbs says. "It's not a devastating loss because you do have other outlets. You are really just taking [money] out of one pocket and putting it into another."
From a media-buying perspective, "As long as something is working and generating a rating, I don't care whether it's fresh or not," Mr. Nass concludes.