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Syndicated tv programs continue to cut into the broadcast networks' share of the national TV ad budgets, but they are doing so largely with the help of the broadcast networks.

The most expensive barter ad units in the national syndicated TV marketplace are reruns of shows currently appearing on the Big 4 broadcast networks, according to an Advertising Age/Electronic Media survey of agency media buyers who handle syndication.

"Home Improvement," with an average 30-second barter ad unit rate of $136,000, currently is the most expensive show in the syndication marketplace, followed by "Seinfeld" at $105,000 per 30-second spot (see chart at left).


While top performing first-run shows such as "Entertainment Tonight," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" continue to command top barter ad dollars, the high-end of syndication ad pricing is dominated by successful off-network runs that feature barter time.

Overall, four of the top 10 and six of the top 15 most expensive commercial prices were for off-network series. Media buyers say they would likely account for more of the total if more of them were available.

"They have strong demand, because they have a proven a track record, which is not something you can say for any new first-run syndicated shows," explains Frank Campisi, senior VP-national broadcast research at SFM Media Corp., a New York-based media-buying service.

"When you get an off-network program of the magnitude of a 'Home Improvement,' or a 'Seinfeld,' or a 'Roseanne,' there is no question that it is going to do extremely well in syndication," he adds. "There is no risk. With first-run shows, it's a dartboard."


Media buyers say strong ad prices for off-network series reflect a greater reliability in forecasting their ratings success. New first-run shows, meanwhile, often produce dramatic swings in performance against their initial audience guarantees.

Twentieth Television's "Access Hollywood," for example, sold at high demand on strong expectations in last year's upfront marketplace, which pushed its average unit rate up to $71,000. Syndication industry executives say a more accurate figure for "Access Hollywood" is probably between $60,000 and $65,000 per average 30-second spot. They say the media-buyer responses probably include about a 10% "fudge factor" on the high end.

Nonetheless, "Access Hollywood" has failed to meet its ratings projection and currently is fetching only about $45,000 per :30 in the scatter market, according to sales executives. In terms of ratings performance, it ranks 37th among the top 50 syndicated TV shows measured by Nielsen Media Research through Nov. 10, with an average household rating of a 3.0.


Conversely, Warner Bros.' "Rosie O'Donnell Show," is performing much better than initial expectations and its ad prices are soaring in the scatter marketplace. The show's $30,000-per-:30 price ranked second among talk shows to the $69,000 for genre leader "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Interestingly, talk show ad rates, with the exception of Ms. Winfrey's and Ms. O'Donnell's programs, are dramatically lower than off-network and first-run programs. This observation most likely reflects how advertisers, wary of "trash talk" shows, have pulled out of the genre, despite strong ratings.

The cheapest ad rate among the 50 shows studied was $9,000 for Multimedia Entertainment's "Jerry Springer Show"-a program that's drawn its share of criticism for controversial topics.

Overall, media buyers say the biggest determining factor in the strength of ad prices for syndicated shows is their TV station clearances and, thus, their ratings potential.

"It's all a distribution game," says Mr. Campisi. "With the WB and UPN networks eating up more of the premium time slots on local TV stations, it is becoming very difficult to project the performance of any syndicated show and especially a new first-run program."


Adds Jon Mandel, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Grey Advertising, New York: "Once you get past the top four or five [syndicated TV shows], you get into the world of smoke and mirrors."

Mr. Mandel says most syndicators aggressively overestimate the ratings projections for new shows and offer audience guarantees to advertisers to justify it. But he notes that the guarantees are less valuable in syndication than in network, because syndicators often don't have the ad inventory available to compensate for significant underdelivery.

As a result, he says, they often have to give cash back on the deals, which causes marketers to miss their ratings point goals.

"What good is cash back when your brand needs to meet its audience targets?" asks Mr. Mandel.

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