Syndication Special Report: Once-Potent Trib Unit Looks for Answers

With Parent's Status in Limbo, Entertainment Property Soldiers on

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As recently as a few years ago, Tribune Co's. syndication arm was considered an industry stalwart. With a host of well-regarded sci-fi shows like "Mutant X" and "Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict," Tribune Entertainment cleaned up on weekends; "Family Feud" gave it weekday muscle.

Alas, with the ongoing drumbeat of speculation about the future of its parent company, Tribune Entertainment appears to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Not a syndicator with the ratings firepower of a CBS or Warner Bros., Tribune Entertainment was already facing a challenging environment before its parent started looking at selling off its properties. The syndie unit has ramped down its slate of original productions and counts a mere handful of top properties among its current offerings.

However, those offerings include some well-known brands including "American Idol Rewind" and "South Park." Also, Tribune Entertainment has shown it can provide advertisers with forward-thinking opportunities beyond the 30-second spot.

Bids for Tribune Co. are due this week, and until the company decides what to do with its assets, Tribune Entertainment will likely remain in an odd sort of limbo: going about its business-successfully, as it turns out-but not knowing whether it will exist several months from now.

Tribune Entertainment veteran Clark Morehouse, the unit's exec VP-general manager, admits that the up-in-the-air status has proved frustrating and that he doesn't know how or when it will be resolved.

"There's an awful lot going on within our parent company that will clearly affect us one way or another," Mr. Morehouse says. "It could be very, very good, or it could be not so good."

While he singles out Mr. Morehouse as "really creative," Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch, describes Tribune Entertainment as "kind of an average player."

Mr. Morehouse acknowledges some amount of struggle: "We haven't been as nimble as we've been in the past and as, hopefully, we'll be in the future. Questions about the [future of the] company, frankly, are why we lost 'Family Feud.' " FremantleMedia North America, which produces the game show, has shifted domestic distribution rights to Debmar-Mercury.

Tribune Entertainment remains skilled at finding different advertiser opportunities such as the product integration featured in "American Idol Rewind." The show's 2006-07 incarnation takes the 22 hours of the first season of "American Idol" and adds four hours of extra footage that never aired. Marketers responded enthusiastically to opportunities to embed their brands in content, with Subway, Ferrero USA's Tic Tac and Maybelline onboard.
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