The most valuable syndicated TV shows to national advertisers continue to be popular off-network series -- particularly those shows that are actively in the original cycle run on major broadcast networks.
`FRIENDS' ON TOP
In fact, six of the 10 most expensive shows in Advertising Age's 1999-2000 syndicated TV pricing survey are off-networks series, only one of which -- "Seinfeld" -- no longer airs as a network original.
Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution's "Friends" continues as the most expensive syndicated TV advertising buy, commanding $167,000 per 30-second spot, according to media buyers surveyed by AA.
Columbia TriStar Television's "Seinfeld," meanwhile, continues to look healthy for its age, placing a close second with an average unit rate of $165,000, followed by Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution's "The Drew Carey Show" at $118,000, a list newcomer.
At $112,000 per 30-second spot, Paramount Domestic Television's venerable "Entertainment Tonight" was the only original syndicated series to join the three off-network series in the six-figure ad price range.
Most of the top syndicated shows also are commanding significant price increases over last season. Prices for "Friends" and "Seinfeld" rose 19% and 20%, respectively, over last year's survey, while "Entertainment Tonight" is up 7%. Other perennial syndication favorites, such as King World Production's "Jeopardy!" (up 24% to $78,000) and "Wheel of Fortune" (up 12% to $77,000) also showed healthy gains.
However, in a troubling sign, some top off-network series also have plummeted in advertising value.
Prices for "Frasier," which was heavily touted into syndication a year ago, have dropped 20% to $74,000, while rates for Fox TV's red-hot paranormal series, "The X-Files," inexplicably have fallen 19% to $72,000.
Off-network staple "Home Improvement," meanwhile, has dropped a sharp 33% to $68,000 and "ER," which still is the top-rated series on TV on NBC, has seen its syndication market value drop 17% to $55,000.
On a positive note, syndication's grand dame of talk, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," continues to build demand, with an average 30-second spot rising 15% to $69,000 and ascending courtroom phenom "Judge Judy" has jumped 74% to $61,000 a unit.
Media buyers say these findings are not a cause for concern over the vitality of some top network series because there only is a thin relationship between their network and syndicated TV values. Media buyers say the drop in syndication commercial-time value is not indicative of the network commercial-time value.
Dramas such as "ER" and "The X-Files" may draw top numbers on network prime time, but they are relatively poor performers off-network. Sitcoms, on the other hand, generally hold up quite well and some even build when they go into their syndication cycle.
The prices an advertiser pays for syndicated series, according to media buyers, are based mainly on an expectation of how well these series will deliver viewers off-network.
"When we buy syndication, we're buying an audience. Just because a show delivers on network, is no guarantee that you will get the same audience off-network," says Ray Dundas, exec VP-national broadcast at SFM Media Corp., New York.
That, he says, is one of the reasons why syndicated series command less dollars per 30-seconds than the same shows attract in network primetime.
DIFFERENT SORT OF VIEWER
Mr. Dundas cites "Friends" as an example. At $167,000 per 30-seconds, the Warner Bros. series earns less than one-third of the $510,000 NBC fetched last fall when it brought "Friends" back for the 1999-2000 series, according to Advertising Age's annual prime-time pricing survey (AA Sept. 20). The syndicated run generally attracts less viewers and different types of viewers than the network original.
"Season-to-date, the syndicated `Friends' is doing like a 7.0 rating, including double-runs. On NBC, `Friends' is doing a 14.0," says Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at Carat North America, New York.
Factoring in actual audience delivery of the syndicated run of "Friends," it is fetching about 42% of what NBC gets on a household cost-per-thousand basis.
Nonetheless, Mr. Donchin says, "You would expect to pay a premium for the network run."
He says many factors enter into that equation -- including the obvious fact that the syndicated run is comprised of repeats -- but also because syndicators sell ratings based on multiple airings of a show, known as a gross average audience rating.
HARD TO COMPARE
"It's very difficult to compare the two," says Mr. Dundas, "because on network, you're achieving your audience all at once. It's unduplicated reach. In syndication, your ratings are based on a couple of spots running within a week."
That relationship, however, could change soon, explains Mr. Dundas, as broadcast networks begin "multiplexing" episodes of their top series. NBC, for example, is exploring such a scenario with Pax TV, which will be sold and packaged with NBC shows in the future.
"Maybe they will come up with a business plan where you get a spot on NBC and a spot in the same show a week later on Pax. If that happens, there will be less of a difference between network and syndication," says Mr. Dundas.
Meanwhile, buyers say syndication is benefiting from the same strong advertising demand that has been fueling the overall national TV marketplace, including broadcast and cable network shows.
As a result, they say syndicators have been aggressively packaging the kind of top-tier shows reflected on the Ad Age survey with considerably less desirable B-list and C-list products.
"Syndication is really a marketplace of the haves and the have-nots," says Mr. Donchin. "There's a lot of premium product and then you've got all this schlock and there's really nothing in between. The problem is, that if you need to buy one of the top syndicated shows, you're going to have to take some of the stuff that they're trying to push out the door."
Joe Mandese is editor of The Myers Report.