He got game

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Syndicated TV has been hard to ignore this season, with its programming often in the mainstream news.

Sharp quiz show contestant Ken Jennings, who pocketed $2.5 million after a long winning streak, helped renew interest in King World Productions' "Jeopardy!" Both FedEx Corp. and H&R Block leaped on references to their companies in the show in subsequent marketing.

Meanwhile, over at another King World property, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," a giant Pontiac giveaway from General Motors Corp. still has marketers looking for "me-too" branded entertainment opportunities in syndication fare.

Stirring passions, for better or worse, was the announcement that NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution and Mark Burnett Productions were teaming up with Martha Stewart for a daytime show. The new, as yet unnamed program, debuting next fall, will supposedly showcase a looser, funnier side of the domestic diva.

The buzz about syndicated programming seems to have translated into real activity, too. Target Corp., Colgate-Palmolive Co., Denny's Corp., PepsiCo's Quaker Oats Co., Unilever, Kimberly-Clark Corp. and GM all participated in the annual syndicators get-together of the National Association of Television Programming Executives in Las Vegas this January.

Syndicators say the expanded marketer presence was just one positive that will help boost momentum as the players prepare for the Syndicated Network Television Association's first distributors event of the season, set for this week in New York. While NATPE has a wider focus with panel discussions about all manner of subjects affecting the future of TV, SNTA is essentially a syndicators' "show and tell" for media agencies.

"The imminent death of syndication has been reported so many times," says Peter Butchen, senior VP-group director, national broadcast, at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative, New York, "but it is alive and kicking." The marketers Mr. Butchen represents include Time Warner's America Online and Bank of America.

He names four new shows that generated some heat: Martha Stewart's; Sony Pictures Television's "The Robin Quivers Show," starring Howard Stern's longtime sidekick; "The Tyra Banks Show," featuring the supermodel and distributed by Time Warner's Telepictures Productions; and "A Current Affair," the entertainment newsmagazine being resurrected by News Corp.'s Twentieth Television.

Elizabeth Herbst-Brady, director-broadcast investment at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA, Chicago, and a former VP of SNTA, notes the potential of syndicated shows that already have a track record. Ms. Herbst-Brady ran sales operations for Universal, Fox and Tribune Co., so understandably is bright about the industry's prospects.

"One thing I've found interesting is that the best new shows are what get people excited, but the real value comes from the shows that have been on the air for a long time," she says. "They can deliver a consistent audience. `Oprah' and `Dr. Phil' are really excellent opportunities for any advertiser."

One of the most prominent talking points among syndication sales executives and media buyers this year is what can be done beyond the 30-second spot. Another change: the growing legion of branded entertainment executives now residing at media agencies who are at the table alongside their airtime-buying colleagues.

REASSESS NEEDS

"I think vendors are more flexible about how they view participation," Ms. Herbst-Brady observes. "There were walls around marketing and production. We need to get creative and understand the needs of programming and the needs of the advertiser."

"We look at our properties and try to identify areas where content can be enhanced," says Michael Teicher, exec VP-media sales at Time Warner's Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. "We work closely with Revlon and America Online in `Extra,' and we provide exclusive content to AOL for Broadband and Revlon tied to being contemporary. We devote a segment in `Extra' in which they sponsor all things fashion."

AOL has been more active in the syndicated arena, also signing on for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," from Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Television. The Web giant's Instant Messenger product is incorporated to help contestants gain live audience response to difficult questions.

TelevisionWeek, a sibling publication of Advertising Age, last month reported on a Warner Bros. deal with two unnamed advertisers for product placement in syndicated sitcoms. While Warner Bros. didn't wish to comment, it's clear there's interest in product insertion in off-network shows.

There's no getting away from complaints among buyers, however, that syndicated hits have been scarce. Part of the problem is the dominance on network TV of reality programming, which usually doesn't work well as reruns in syndication. That situation is likely to change given the strong drama slate in 2004-05 on the networks.

Howard Levy, exec VP at Buena Vista Television Group, argues that syndicated TV doesn't have the same turnover that network and cable shows have and therefore there shouldn't be the same focus on new hits.

"I haven't been discouraged," he says. "People always focus on the last big show; we don't have the same turnover. `Oprah' isn't going anywhere, `Dr. Phil' isn't going anywhere. `[Everybody Loves] Raymond' will live on. People focus on the last big thing; our big things stay on the air longer. In cable they're like comets-look at `Trading Spaces.' "

Mr. Levy points to the success of off-net "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," from Viacom's King World, and says that bodes well for "Alias," which moves into syndication next fall via Buena Vista. "CSI" and "Malcolm in the Middle," from Twentieth Television, bowed last year and have performed well.

Other offerings such as "The Jane Pauley Show" have not lived up to expectations, and station groups believe that the NBC Universal show will be canceled. Sony's "The Robin Quivers Show" was slow out of the gate at NATPE despite garnering attention.

Daytime shows have also seen ratings declines this year, though gross rating points overall remain stable.

Certainly, more dollars were spent on syndicated shows than in 2003. The Television Bureau of Advertising reports that in the top 100 local TV markets, syndicated TV grew third-quarter ad spending by 16.8%, vs. a year earlier, to $973.5 million. Nielsen Media Research figures also show a 20.8% growth in syndicated TV for the first nine months of the year, against an 8.3% rise in all U.S. media.

PRICED TOO HIGH

Buyers say that syndicators priced themselves too highly during last year's upfront selling period, with top-tier shows commanding in some cases double-digit increases in a market that was essentially flat in network TV, and only up in cable for select channels.

Agencies also contend that the weak scatter market this year is an indication that syndicators overplayed their hand in the upfront and shouldn't have held back as much inventory as they did. Sellers describe scatter as "slow and steady."

Syndicators might be hit by the pullback in direct-to-consumer drug advertising. Drug companies are big supporters of shows that skew older, such as early-evening quiz shows. Procter & Gamble Co., a major player in syndication, has pulled money out of the market for the second quarter.

Syndicators themselves admit that business from autos isn't as strong as it might be. Growth categories include DVDs and electronic games.

"The networks and syndicators recognize the marketplace isn't as strong as they think it is, and scatter is the perfect example," says Mr. Butchen. "They'd better be realistic, or they'll get their heads cut off."

East to West

The three-city SNTA Syndication Day 2005 kicks off this week. Each gathering includes a Planners Summit. The schedule:

* March 10, New York, Grand Hyatt

* March 21, Chicago, Ritz Carlton Four Seasons

* March 24, Los Angeles, Four Seasons in Beverly Hills

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