TV Upfront

Rachael Ray sauces up syndication

Food star, Mullally, Behrendt join another judge show in otherwise quiet upfront

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Syndication is the kind of girlfriend your mother always wanted you to have-she's stable, not sexy.

This year, media buyers are turning to syndication for its reliability as a venue for solid rating points but not huge breakaway hits.

"Syndication is sort of the unsexy daypart," says Elizabeth Herbst-Brady, senior VP-director of broadcast investment at Starcom USA, Chicago, adding that its reliability is the attraction. "That being said there are some tremendously valuable [gross rating points] that provide some consistency as they have been on the air for a while-'Friends,' 'Wheel of Fortune,' 'Ellen,' 'Oprah,' Maury Povich. "

There's also new fare for the fall that's generating a dose of buzz, such as Rachael Ray, the Food Network phenom who will expand into syndication in September. While there's no such thing as a sure thing, King World Productions' "Rachael Ray" is about as close as it comes this year, buyers say.

That very fact underscores a core tenet of syndication: It remains a story of haves and have nots. A handful of high-ranking shows, from syndie stalwarts to high-profile newcomers, capture buyers' attention. The rest fall by the wayside.

Of course, that's often the case in syndication year after year. That's why buyers expect business as usual in the syndication upfront, though they do anticipate modest, single-digital gains over last year, when upfront sales topped $2.5 billion.

"Nobody is losing sleep over the syndication marketplace," says Jason Kanefsky, VP-account director at MPG, New York. In fact, as with the rest of the marketplace, syndication will look like a repeat of last year, Ms. Herbst-Brady says.

In addition to Ms. Ray, other potential new stars include a Hispanic judge, a comedian writer made famous from his oft-quoted "Sex & the City" line "He's just not that into you" and the actress who created "Karen" on NBC's "Will & Grace." These new entrants-"Cristina's Court" (Twentieth Television), "The Greg Behrendt Show" (Sony Pictures Television) and "The Megan Mullally Show" (NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution)-will join existing programs such "Dr. Phil," "The Tyra Banks Show" and comedy beachheads like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" vying for ad dollars.

Syndicators had a strong batting average this year because most of the new shows they proffered were picked up, while 2005-06 freshmen such as "Martha" and "The Tyra Banks Show" were renewed. The incumbents and the fresh faces are expected to do well, says Mitch Burg, president of the Syndicated Network Television Association. He points out that the average syndicated program is up 7% in ratings year to year, checking in with a 1.4 Nielsen rating in adults 18-49. "That makes it as highly rated as prime time," he says. "The top shows on TV always include 'Friends,' 'Raymond' and 'Seinfeld.' "

Mr. Burg expects the syndication market to be strong again this year, after finishing 2005 with $4.2 billion in ad revenue, an 8% increase over '04.

Media buyers and programming analysts are fond of the "steady as she goes" mantle that syndication has assumed. "Because there is stability that's the reason advertisers seek that area," says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming, Katz Television Group. "They are also able more efficiently to target specific demos. ... The stability is really more the story."

But that consistency is the very reason syndicators shouldn't expect big gains. "I would expect syndication to have very moderate price increases," Ms. Herbst-Brady says. "I would expect all cable and syndication to be moderate. Syndicators will be interested in growing volume over last year and in exchange will be willing to be friendly with regard to pricing."

Rachael Ray is clearly landing in the must-have camp, but some buyers caution circumspection. "We have to ratchet down the expectations so she can be successful," Mr. Kanefsky says. "She won't be Dr. Phil. Her time periods don't allow for that kind of huge ratings." However, the show will still appeal to advertisers, he says.

That's because Ms. Ray has already demonstrated that she knows what to do in front of the camera. The new syndicated venue will be a talk show style program but not in the traditional vein, says Terry Wood, president-creative affairs and development for King World and CBS Paramount Domestic Television. "Rachael Ray" will be styled to suit Ms. Ray's distinctive personality.

NBC Universal would like to have the same sort of marketplace chatter for its new talk variety show starring Megan Mullally. Despite strong clearances, the show, like most other freshman fare, doesn't have the cachet of a Rachael Ray. But that could be a good thing as Ms. Ray has the weight of expectations on her, while others do not.

"Megan is well-known and loved in the Hollywood community" says Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution.

NBC Universal is also the distributor behind Martha Stewart's sophomore show, "Martha," which underwent its own nips and tucks this year but is still pretty much a straight shot across the bow for advertisers targeting women 25-54 who are decision-makers.

"It's a pretty pure demo with adult women who are buying the package-goods and different products you would see in daytime," Mr. Wallach says.
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