NATPE '98: PROGRAMMERS SEEKING A FAIR SHOT FOR THEIR NEW SHOWS FACE UPHILL FIGHT AS STATION GROUPS GROW STRONGER AND ESTABLISHED SYNDICATORS TOSS THEIR WEIGHT AROUND. BUT CHALLENGERS LIKE POLYGRAM STILL HIT THE HURDLES RUNNING FOR FARE LIKE 'MOTOWN LIVE.'

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It's getting harder and harder to launch TV shows in syndication as time periods continue to be gnawed by the Fox, UPN and WB networks.

Furthermore, "Key time periods are tied-up by a handful of shows in multiple-year deals," says Irwin Gotlieb, president-CEO of MacManus Group's TeleVest. "So what's left isn't that terrific, and there are lot of shows contending for those slots."

Hence Mr. Gotlieb comes to the inevitable conclusion: "The rate of failure for first-run syndicated shows will get higher."

Two of the harshest factors faced by programmers trying to launch a new show are station group control and established syndicators with lots of clout.

Station groups, especially those with stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, can use their power to control terms and distribution.

"One of those groups was able to get distribution of a show last season because of its clout," says one syndication executive.

POLYGRAM NAVIGATES THE WATERS

It's no secret that distributors with hit programs use the threat of moving those shows to competing stations to get their new shows on the air.

Matt Cooperstein, senior VP-distribution for PolyGram Television in the U.S., knows the difficulties of getting first-run shows launched in syndication. While parent company PolyGram Film Entertainment is a giant on the international scene, its TV division is a fledgling in the U.S. syndication market. Polygram bought ITC Entertainment Group and folded it into the company a few years ago, primarily for the film library, and now PolyGram is trying to break into the first-run market.

"Though we're owned by a very large company, we're really considered an independent, and we don't have the special relationships with the stations that a Warner Bros. or a King World does," says Mr. Cooperstein. "So, we have to do things a little differently."

POINT OF DIFFERENCE

The first thing PolyGram did was look at its music and film brands.

"We own Motown, and we saw the possibilities of a targeted ethnic marketplace that would be very responsive to a property we're calling `Motown Live,' which is a weekly live performance variety show," says Mr. Cooperstein.

He says PolyGram is putting a lot of money behind the show, and it will have an expensive veneer not usually seen in syndication.

"We've been very successful to date in selling the show below the radar," he says.

Mr. Cooperstein wouldn't provide details, but said "Motown Live" was obtaining clearances in access, prime-time and late-night periods.

"We're getting a very good response in access in the Southeast. The WBs and the UPNs are still building out, and there's a couple of nights like Fridays where there are some slots available," he notes.

Stations can play "Motown Live" on Thursdays, Fridays or over the weekend.

PolyGram also will try to cultivate its market by building fresh programming ideas around successfully branded films such as "The Crow" and "Total Recall."

"We are trying to separate ourselves from the pack by not being the fourth or the fifth or the sixth company into a genre, with the next sword-and-sandal knockoff, or the next hardware show," Mr. Cooperstein says.

POLYGRAM TRIES HOUR-LONG SERIES

PolyGram bought the rights to create a TV version of the successful film series "The Crow," and has taken "The Crow -- Stairway to Heaven" to the syndication market as an hourlong program. The "Crow" movies -- a third one is being prepped now -- are produced by Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax division, but Mr. Cooperstein said Disney turned down the TV version because, at the time, it didn't want to produce an hourlong dramatic TV format.

How are the stations reacting to the show? "Well, the marketplace has been a little slower to respond to hours, waiting to see the November ratings book," he says cautiously.

"Total Recall," also an hour-long show, is a weekly TV series based on the hit 1990 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The distribution plan for "Total Recall" is torn out of the MGM Worldwide Television Group playbook. MGM has taken hit movies such as "Stargate," created TV properties and then licensed them first to pay-cable and then to syndication.

"MGM has been very successful in the model it's set up," Mr. Cooperstein says, "and that hasn't gone unnoticed here as a way to creatively sell -- first to pay-cable and then following up in syndication and hopefully putting yourself in a position to succeed. I'm letting station people know I have `Total Recall' for 1999, and everybody knows the model of going to pay-cable first, and nobody has a problem with it."

He says it will be a branded product, but not widely distributed. He expects the pay-cable company to spend money to promote it. One element noticeably absent from PolyGram is an announcement of any station groups as partners.

"I don't think it's essential, but look, it couldn't hurt," says Mr. Cooperstein. "We are exploring all of those avenues. I think you can piece together a great lineup with the right show. I think you can remain independent."

EARLY ADVERTISERS

Another strategy would be to get an advertiser on board early in a project.

"In `Motown Live,' we went to advertisers very early, at the beginning of the summer, way before we started clearing stations, and got strategic partners involved in the show who will be involved in a long-term arrangement," he says.

PolyGram has inked deals with two to three major blue-chip marketers for "Motown Live," though Mr. Cooperstein declines to identify them at press time.

"Is this an increasingly tough environment to launch shows?" Mr. Cooperstein asks rhetorically. "You bet. But we think with a little creativity you can still break through and be successful."

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