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Syndie stuck in a rut

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The TV syndication business is like a troubled guest in search of a talk show.

But where would you send it for relief? Oprah or Jerry Springer?

The answer is either, since syndicators can't be fussy these days. Syndication needs hits-and any good-rated show would help.

Syndication hasn't seen a big hit in years. And 2001's economic collapse added to the woes. Syndication was the hardest hit of the three major national TV venues this past year, dropping by some estimates a startling 33% in national ad dollars to $1.7 billion. Network and cable programmers also lost ground, but nothing like syndication.

Besides a dearth of new first-run hits, off-network comedies are underperforming in syndication, adding to their owners' headaches. But despite the lackluster performers, available time slots for new shows are hard to find.

"Syndication is in a tough space," says Bill Cella, chairman of Interpublic Group of Cos.' media negotiating concern Magna Global USA, New York. "They are being challenged enormously, and some of these shows could go bye-bye. They have to consolidate some stuff. As a buyer, there are not a lot of must-buys anymore."

Industry analysts would say syndication is no different from network or cable in this one respect: Big hits can change everything. Syndication hasn't had one since "Judge Judy" was launched more than five years ago by Viacom's Paramount Television Group and "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" debuted in 1995 from AOL Time Warner's Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution.

"We have been unlucky in that we haven't had a breakthrough hit," says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming for TV sales rep Katz Television Group, New York. "If we had a breakthrough hit, viewership would go up, and that would drive everything [including more new shows]. It would say that aspects of the business are alive and well and functioning."

But it's more than that. Syndication also has problems in marketing itself, as media planners can still be mystified about how syndication works. Syndicated shows are sold to individual TV stations that play them in a variety of time periods. An advertiser can buy into one show, but its commercials could run in many dayparts, depending on where the local stations slot the show. The business' marketing push for the ad community has been in the hands of the Syndicated Network Television Association. But SNTA took a hit last year with the departure of its president, Allison Bodenmann, who became VP-sales and marketing at cable's Court TV.

Though SNTA a few years back was revamped from ASTA (Advertiser Syndicated Television Association), it still doesn't have the financial resources to compete with the likes of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, cable TV's marketing arm. Industry executives say SNTA's financial resources are a fraction of CAB's annual $2 million budget.

"Although syndication is an efficient medium, we really have not done as good in marketing the benefits of syndication," says Dick Askin, president-CEO of Tribune Entertainment. "That is going to be one of the priorities for us this year."

Cable is increasingly a main competitor to syndication. A growing number of cable networks' reach is equal to or better than the U.S. household universe of syndicated shows. Now, 18 cable networks each reach more than 80 million U.S. households. Media buyers are spending more on cable due to its larger national footprint.

"One of the advantages syndication had was the [U.S.] clearance level, and they kind of lost that advantage," says Chuck Larsen, president of Los Angeles-based October Moon Productions, which is syndicating MTV's "Road Rules" next season.

Syndication is still tops in this area, says Tim Duncan, senior VP of TVi Media, a New York-based ad sales company owned by Hubbard Broadcasting. The average U.S clearance level for a Monday-Friday syndicated show is 90%, while the top 10 cable networks are averaging an 80% U.S. household clearance, he says. The average clearance for the 52 nationally rated cable networks is 62.9%.

Syndication ratings, like those for broadcast and some older cable networks, have also shown signs of erosion. A few years ago, syndicated shows needed a minimum 3.0 Nielsen rating to break even, says Katz's Mr. Carroll. Now, shows can be profitable if they achieve a 1.8 rating. Increased ad dollars have let these lower-rated syndicated shows survive. Growth of national TV ad dollars in the last decade-at sometimes double-digit annual price increases-kept some shows financially afloat even as their average ratings were tumbling.

"The economy is lousy for everyone," says Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. "It's tough out there. But even in this kind of economy, if we can get a decent rating, we can still sell decently."

Even now, for some syndicated low-budget, low-rated weekly shows it's still possible to make a profit. "You can make money with a 1-rated show," says TVi's Mr. Duncan.

Overall, syndication executives say they aren't suffering any more than other TV venues. "Syndication isn't any worse than any other area of broadcasting; the ratings are no worse than for network TV or local stations," Mr. Robertson says. "It's a fact of life that when you have more channels, average ratings for all programs are going to suffer."

Syndication dropped some 4% in total gross rating points in the fourth quarter of 2001 vs. the same period a year before. The biggest drop came in its daytime programming, which lost 12% year to year, says Mr. Duncan, who was the executive director of the ASTA before his current position at TVi Media.

Mr. Duncan still believes the future of syndication is very strong compared with other national TV venues. For instance, he notes, the average network show across a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week period gets a 3.3 rating from Nielsen Media Research. In prime time it's 7.7.

Most of the ad money in syndication is made with the big Monday-Friday, so-called "strip" shows. In the current season, there are 69 strips, up from 68 the year before and 62 the year before that.

Much of this increase in recent years has come from off-network sitcoms such as "Spin City" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." But there are fewer first-run syndicated shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Judge Judy."

Off-network shows generally have been safer bets down through the years than first-run programs because they have a track record due to their network airings.

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