Crowded talk circuit heads upscale

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Since king world productions struck gold with "Dr. Phil" earlier this year, syndicated TV programmers have been racing to follow its success with a new class of talk shows aimed at more upscale audiences.

The breed of talk show that explores society's lowest common denominator is losing viewers and advertisers, say media buyers, and syndicators are pouring money into smarter, hipper formats for the fall upfront TV season. Media buyers are optimistic about "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "The Sharon Osbourne Show," both from Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, because they score high on originality.

Warner Bros. would not comment on rumors that its talk shows hosted by Jenny Jones and Caroline Rhea will disappear this fall. But the company confirmed it is spending more than $60 million to develop its two new talk shows, which is substantially more than any of its previous efforts in the genre.

"We see a lot of untapped potential in talk shows targeting more upscale audiences, and this means we have to pay more for people like Sharon and Ellen, who bring their own audiences," says Jim Paratore, president, Telepictures Productions, and exec VP, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. The target audience for both talk shows is women between 18 and 34; Ms. Osbourne's show is expected to draw mostly female viewers, ranging from the MTV crowd to fortysomethings, say WB spokesmen.

Ms. DeGeneres is also expected to reach adult female viewers, but she also has a strong following among college-age viewers of her stand-up comedy, says Mr. Paratore. He doesn't fear the shows will cannibalize each other's viewers or advertising prospects.


Media buyers have a more tepid response to King World's "Living It Up! With Ali & Jack," whose cheery duo of Ali Wentworth and Jack Ford seems to mimic an already oversubscribed talk-show genre.

Buzz continues about several talk shows possibly in development for the fall 2004 season from other hosts with upscale appeal, such as actress Goldie Hawn, singer Lionel Ritchie and Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, but no details have been finalized.

Aside from talk shows, the number of new shows in other syndicated genres is down. Media buyers are forecasting only minimal gains this year in advertising outlays for syndicated TV. Total ad spending on the segment is expected to come in around $2 billion, while programmers are taking a far more cautious approach to developing shows.

"It's not the programming, it's the global economy that's causing the most trouble for us, and the fact that ad spending in many categories, including automotive and retail, is trending down," says Bob Riordan, senior VP-managing director of national broadcast for Havas' media buying unit Media Planning Group, New York. "We're looking at a flat market in syndicated TV."

Although automotive, traditionally the largest category of advertising spending in syndicated TV, is expected to be off this fall, consumer package-goods and pharmaceuticals are expected to hold steady, say media buyers. Procter & Gamble Co. was the No. 1 spender in syndicated TV programming in 2002, followed by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer; and talk shows are a safe bet for both categories.

Although the manic development of talk shows anchored by celebrities with high Q ratings is a safer bet than inventing new genres, media experts say there will almost certainly be a surplus of talk shows this fall, putting new pressure on the leaders, including King World's "Oprah" and "Dr. Phil."


"For the first time in many years, we're not seeing any first-run action dramas for syndication and no new court shows," says Annette Cerbone, senior director of national TV and radio at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, New York.

Some novel programs are entering the fray: Sony Television is developing "eBay-TV," and a few syndicators are flirting with reality TV programming. A weekday syndicated program planned for this fall from Bunim/Murray Productions called "Starting Over" follows six women as they launch new lifestyles.

Some media buyers worry that a lack of hot new network TV sitcoms, plus the nets' growing dependence on reality TV, will soon begin to hurt the overall syndicated TV marketplace.

"I wish we had more premium product to choose from," says Andy Donchin, senior VP-national broadcast for Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York.

The next batch of off-network TV series to enter syndication this fall include "Becker" and "King of Queens." But these programs never drew the ratings of classic sitcoms from the '90s, say observers.

"You could argue that new audiences are discovering some of the classic sitcoms like `Everybody Loves Raymond' and `Seinfeld' every season," says Ray Warren, managing director of Omnicom Group's media buying operation OMD.

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