The Biz: DeWitt talks the talk

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TV syndication could use one more good talker this season.

No, not another talk show. Just someone who can talk up all the "Oprahs," "Entertainment To-nights," "Blind Dates" and even "Jerry Springers" to media executives with money to spend.

At the same time, the syndication business needs a good talking to-fast. Last July's upfront advertising season landed it in a bloodbath as advertisers were able to negotiate deals priced 30% to 40% lower in cost-per-thousand viewers than the previous year. Overall, syndication revenue dropped to an estimated $1.7 billion from $2.2 billion in the May 2000 upfront market.

Enter Gene DeWitt, the loquacious newly named president of the Syndicated Network Television Association, TV syndication's advertising trade group and marketing arm. He'll soon depart, with full pockets, from his position as chairman-CEO of Optimedia International, formed after he sold his eponymous media company to Publicis Groupe in 2000.

DeWitt has at least two hurdles: halt the outbound flow of syndication dollars and halt lack of cooperation between syndication executives.

"I view them like a hockey team," DeWitt says. "Lots of testosterone. But in fact if you can coach a hockey team, then you can get the very best of thinking from a group of highly charged syndicators."

In the past, major players such as King World Media Sales took a pass on SNTA or its predeccesor Advertiser Syndicated Television Association, feeling the organization lacked the clout to successfully market the industry.

As recently as January, the National Association of Television Program Executives meeting revealed some of the dissension when a number of syndicators abandoned the convention floor and moved to private suites in Las Vegas.

King World is back in SNTA, according to executives. But one major studio-Columbia TriStar Television-remains a holdout. Columbia is focusing its marketing on more b-to-b efforts, a company spokeswoman said.

A bigger profile for SNTA might bring all the major syndictaors under one tent. With the hiring of the oft-quoted and well-respected DeWitt, SNTA is poised to nearly double its annual budget to some $2 million a year, rivaling that of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, according to executives, with member dues tripling to $300,000 a year.

SNTA is also exploring the launch of a syndication conference for advertisers in New York, possibly in April or May, just before the network upfront programming presentations. DeWitt characterized that happening this year as a long shot, but said it was still possible.

more dollars?

But will the changes lead to more dollars? There's a belief that agency staffers at the planning level need to be convinced of the medium's value and DeWitt's experience there can help. (It should be noted DeWitt until recently never bought much syndication for client BMW, which he says is largely because the brand targets a niche, not national audience.)

"We were looking for someone from the part of the community that we talked to least well: the media planners and the researchers," said Marc Hirsch, president of Paramount Advertiser Sales who helped lead the search for a new top SNTA executive.

Syndication isn't always easy to explain. Programs run in a variety of time periods that can move around. And unlike cable and network TV buying, syndicators regularly give back money (as opposed to make-goods) to advertisers when they don't meet ratings guarantees.

No matter who is targeted, DeWitt would appear to have at least one solid sales pitch. Syndicated programming, on average, still posts higher ratings than the same shows on cable. It also can be cost effective. Buying "Friends" in syndication can be 15% to 20% cheaper in CPMs than a buy on NBC.

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