Not grandma's syndication: TV fare adds sophistication

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In the laboratories where syndicated TV programs are being concocted for next fall, last year's lessons are being applied more carefully than ever. Rule No. 1: No talk show can succeed if a host's fame exceeds their interviewing skills. Rule No. 2: Give women what they want.

That means we'll see more shows like "Dr. Phil," which since its 2003 debut has become the most successful new made-for-syndication program in several years, according to media and TV programming executives.

Although "Dr. Phil" has a strong following among men as well, women remain the primary viewers of daytime TV, and programmers are doing a better job of getting inside their heads, say media buyers.

"Syndicators are getting smart and realizing that thanks to time-shifting and TiVo, there are more diverse groups of women watching `daytime' TV, and [syndicators are] coming up with better-quality, more targeted programming," says Neil Faber, president-CEO of NexGen Media Worldwide, New York.

BETTER ENTERTAINMENT

Syndicators are starting to mirror broadcast network and cable TV strategies with their new programming, says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming for Katz Television Group.

"With fewer time periods available, the goal now is to target programming to specific chunks of female viewers, and bring back viewers who defected to cable in search of better entertainment," he says.

The reality TV genre, such a hit on network and cable, is making its way into syndication with News Corp.-owned Twentieth Television's "Ambush Makeover," to be syndicated nationally starting this fall. "Ambush Makeover" was first "incubated" into a successful series on News Corp.'s Fox station group.

Another reality-inspired syndication success is "Starting Over." The show is garnering strong ratings among 18-to-24-year-old women, says Linda Finnell, senior VP-programming at General Electric Co.'s NBC Enterprises. "Starting Over" follows a group of women living together and trying to make a new start in their lives; the show has been renewed for a second season.

Despite the success of reality and makeover programs in reaching women on network TV, media insiders say syndicators would be wise to avoid overexploiting the category.

"There's a huge failure rate for reality shows, which are cheap to produce, and a great danger that syndicators will bulk up on these types of shows," says Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of audience analysis at Horizon Media, New York.

Veteran broadcast network personalities are also bringing their aura to women-targeted syndicated programming. NBC Enterprises' "The Jane Pauley Show" makes its debut this fall with the well-known network TV journalist as host. At Telepictures Productions, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" was a hit in its first season, media buyers agree.

ELLEN VS. SHARON

The success of "Ellen" contrasts sharply with the demise of Telepictures' "The Sharon Osbourne Show," which started off with stronger buzz than "Ellen" when the two shows launched last fall but will go off the air in May.

"Sharon Osbourne actually overshadowed Ellen at the beginning, but she was a little too far out there, and she had a lot of obstacles to overcome in terms of being a good interviewer," says Terri McKinzie, assistant media director at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA, Chicago. "Ellen is a veteran entertainer, a professional who does stand-up comedy within the show, with a sense of the quirky and the unexpected."

With "Ellen," Telepictures set out to develop a talk show for smart, upscale women who were tired of lowest-common-denominator programming.

"We wanted to recapture women viewers who had left syndicated daytime TV for cable and satellite by giving them something smarter," says Michael Teicher, exec VP-media sales at Time Warner's Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which handles "Ellen." "We're overindexing with households of $75,000-$100,000 income, and advertisers are very excited about that."

In addition to consumer package goods, automotive and computer advertisers are coming on board for the second season of "Ellen," Mr. Teicher says, but he wouldn't list names because deals are still pending.

Ms. Pauley isn't the only network veteran hoping to attract female viewers with a new talk show.

"The Tony Danza Show," from Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Television Advertising Sales, features the longtime TV actor in a 1-hour strip expected to feature celebrities and everyday people.

"He has great familiarity from `Taxi' and `Who's the Boss?' and great appeal with women," Ms. McKinzie says, "but it will be interesting to see if he has the real interviewing skills that are needed and if he can think on his feet."

Another hot spot for younger viewers is Twentieth Television's hourlong "On-Air With Ryan Seacrest," starring the 29-year-old host of "American Idol," who also hosts a syndicated radio show. The TV program went into national syndication in January.

Despite targeting younger and upscale viewers within the whole, the overriding goal of syndication remains reaching the most possible eyeballs, says NBC Enterprises' Ms. Finnell, who's helping to craft "Jane Pauley" to appeal to a wide audience.

"We're aiming for a broad audience by bringing a well-known and very skilled host to the show, and covering everything from families to celebrities and entertainment to everyday people," she says, adding that advertiser interest from all sectors is strong.

Newcomers in the "Dr. Phil" genre include "The Larry Elder Show," a 1-hour strip from Time Warner's Telepictures featuring the host of a national radio show helping ordinary people sort out their problems. Another entry is "Pat Croce: Moving In," a half-hour strip from Sony Pictures Television starring the motivational speaker and former National Basketball Association coach.

Even Universal's new "Home Delivery," slated for this fall, borrows from "Dr. Phil," with its theme of confronting the personal problems of guests and effecting life changes, all within the hour. Hosts will include veteran New York TV reporter Sukanya Krishnan, among others.

"[`Home Delivery'] will be a combination of all those things that `Dr. Phil' does well, from peeling the onion of a person's story to getting to their story on an emotional basis, with a physical change as the reveal at the end," says Steve Rosenberg, president of Vivendi Universal Entertainment's Universal Domestic Television. The show plans to feature the lives and problems of two to three people per hour when it launches this fall.

With Tribune Entertainment Co. selling ad time, "Home Delivery" has already cleared about half the U.S., says Mr. Rosenberg.

Like "Starting Over," which has harnessed product placement, Universal believes there may be such opportunities within "Home Delivery."

"There's the chance for seamless integration of cars or home or office products within the show," says Elizabeth Herbst, Universal exec VP-advertising sales, who adds that no deals have been signed yet and all product placements would be "organic" and "not forced" within the context of the show.

But the odds of copying the success of "Dr. Phil" aren't good, says Terry Wood, exec VP-programming at Viacom's Paramount Domestic Television. Ms. Wood played a major role in producing the show for distributor King World Productions, after its creation by Chicago's Harpo Productions. Harpo is the home of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," where Phil McGraw nurtured a following before going solo with his own program.

"I knew ... he would create a new genre of TV with his approach to discussing relationships, parenting and family issues," Ms. Wood says. "There is only one Dr. Phil, and you can't copy him."

`MAURY' GAINS

A fragmented audience is a growing factor for syndicated TV, where Universal says more women aged 18-24 watched "Maury" last November than overall top-rated "Oprah," according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by Universal.

It was no accident. Universal has gradually tweaked the talk show, switching host Maury Povich from a suit to a casual shirt, and making the set and topics friendlier to a younger crowd, says Mr. Rosenberg.

"Younger women are a very fickle, but sought-after, audience," says Katz's Mr. Carroll.

"It should come as no surprise syndicators are trying to emulate the programming that works on network TV," Mr. Adgate says. "They're fishing where the fish are."

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