New Syndication Breed: Classmates.com hits TV

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News Corp.'s Twentieth Television this week begins testing a reality TV show based on the popular "Classmates" Web site on 25 of its Fox-owned stations. "Classmates," along with next year's launch of "eBayTV," represents a new breed of syndicated TV programs seeking a promotional lift from strong Internet brands.

"Classmates" will extend the franchise of Classmates.com, a site where school friends, lovers, prospective lovers and even enemies look to reacquaint themselves. "The idea has been around for years," said Michael Smith, president-CEO of Classmates Online. "It grew out of the member stories we got from people."

"We know reunions are extremely popular, especially with talk shows," said Robb Dalton, president-program development for Twentieth Television. "We think it's absolutely the best environment for advertisers."

Mr. Smith said "Classmates" has signed on hotel chain Best Western as integrated-marketing partner, giving the brand TV sponsorship, in-show commercials and product placement. Many of the show's reunions and meetings will take place at Best Western hotels.

"They are hitting people at multiple times in many different venues-the Web site, the advertising [in the show], the content and on different places on our site," he said. Best Western did not return phone calls for comment by press time.

It's unusual for a national advertiser to be part of a syndicated show that hasn't reached full national distribution. "Classmates" covers only 45% of the U.S. TV households; national advertisers normally look for at least 70% coverage before buying a syndicated show on broadcast or cable.

getting attention

One of the continuing problems with syndicated TV shows is getting the attention of viewers among the plethora of programs and networks. Mr. Dalton said Twentieth benefits by tapping into Classmates.com's 35 million registered users who regularly send and receive emails.

The show could also gain from the Web site's omnipresent pop-up ads. For the month of May, Classmates.com ranked seventh in total advertising impressions on the Web, with 1.6 billion, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Classmates.com spent $41 million in advertising in 2002, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, with a majority spent on the Internet. In 2002, privately-held Classmates pulled in $70 million in revenue, according to executives close to the company. The operation has been profitable since 2001.

Each segment of the show will feature one person looking for an acquaintance, old lover or friend. But the person being sought won't know who is trying to contact them. The show will profile the people separately, which will then lead up to a reunion. Mr. Dalton claims Classmates.com generates about 300 to 500 possible story leads a day.

Besides "Classmates," Twentieth has launched other shows in a similar slow rollout process-"Texas Justice," "Extreme Dating" and "Good Day Live." All three took four months to a year to reach national distribution. Now, "Texas Justice" is cleared in 95% of U.S. TV households; "Extreme Dating" is up to 80% and "Good Day Live" is over 88%.

Less risk

"It's a less risky way to launch a show and you have more time to tweak the product," said Jim Curtin, director-programming for Katz Television Group, New York, a national spot TV sales representative.

Last year, Sony Pictures Television attempted to launch "eBayTV" in syndication, including an Internet component whereby the local TV station running the program would co-brand the auction site for its own proprietary local site. But there were complications in getting software out to stations. Now the show looks to be launched in the fall 2004.

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