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Back to normal is how to describe the TV syndication advertiser sales business this year-but only this year.

Unlike the 1994-'95 season-and unlike the 1996-'97 season-there are few new offerings drawing loads of agency media buyer interest. That means the marketplace might not be as crazed as last season.

"We're probably looking at a crop of programming that's a little disappointing. There isn't as much new product," says Rino Scanzoni, director of national broadcast at TeleVest, the media-buying service of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York.

This year's upfront buying season might seem dismal when compared with last year, but according to Bob Cesa, exec VP-advertiser sales at Twentieth Television, the market is simply settling to its usual state.

"In 1994-'95 the scatter prices were 20%-to-40% higher than upfront," Mr. Cesa explains. "In 1995-'96, because they got burned the prior year, they decided to buy in the upfront. This year is a lot more normal. Fewer advertisers will go upfront than last year-but last year was atypical."


While the 1995-'96 season saw the off-net debut of blockbuster sitcoms "Seinfeld" and "Home Improvement," the only really hot property to arrive for this fall seems to be Columbia TriStar Television Distribution's "Mad About You."

That show was sold to 200 stations, giving it 96% coverage of U.S. households, in a record 127 days. It's commanding upfront ad rates starting at $100,000 per :30-below only "Seinfeld" at $140,000.

"These are the highest advertising rates we've ever had on any of our shows in history," says Barry Thurston, Columbia TriStar president.

Part of the appeal is the audience. Since "Mad About You" attracts the same young-adult viewers that "Seinfeld" does, Mr. Thurston says many stations are expected to air them back to back.

Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution's comedies "Martin," which has cleared over 80% of the country, and "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," currently cleared in more than 70% of the U.S., also are contending for young-adult viewers.

"`Martin,' placed strategically, could do very well" at attracting young-adult male viewers, especially in urban markets, says Una Barden, senior VP-associate media director, BBDO Worldwide, New York.

Other less-hyped properties expected to perform well in more targeted markets include MTM's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and Telepicture Distribution's off-PBS syndication run of "This Old House."

"`Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman' might do well in the 25-plus market. They have a good shot next year, depending on where they clear, the percentage of clearance and their time slot," Ms. Barden says.

Some hourlong first-run weeklies buyers expect to do well this season include New World/Genesis' "Two," MTM's "The Cape" and All American's "Sinbad." Buyers also say New World/Genesis' half-hour strip "Access Hollywood" shows promise.

Trash-talk shows, last year's hot syndication programming genre, are on the decline. They're being replaced by a friendlier breed of first-run talk shows.

According to buyers, the most promising ones appear to be Multimedia Entertainment's "Pat Bullard," and Warner Bros.' "Rosie O'Donnell" and "Maureen."

These talk shows "have to rely so much on the personalities involved, instead of racy topics," Mr. Scanzoni says. Their success or failure will depend on subject matter and how well the host handles it, but only time will tell.

"Ultimately, it's execution. Chemistry. It's hard to decipher that when you're looking at a 16-minute promo," he says.

Widespread cancellation of so many of last year's talk shows has opened up new opportunities in daytime programming. To capitalize on this chance, Columbia has turned to game shows.

"We saw that talk was hitting the wall and hitting a saturation point," Mr. Thurston says.

So Columbia decided to revamp and "age down" two classics, "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game," and package them as an hourlong block. It cleared 50% of the nation in two days.

"We think we're ahead of the curve, because we're the first [new] entry into this arena," Mr. Thurston says.

Until now, "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" pretty much had a lock on the game show audience, Mr. Scanzoni says.

But following Columbia's foray into the game show market, "I can imagine we'll be seeing more of them" at next year's National Association of Television Programming Executives convention, he says.


Next year also holds more advertising activity potential, say buyers and sellers.

Mr. Cesa calls the current season a "year of retrenchment" for Twentieth as it gears up for 1997's syndication debuts of "NYPD Blue" and "The X-Files," both of which are expected to do phenomenally well for off-net dramas.

"With `The X-Files,' we'll probably get more demand on the show than we'll know what to do with," Mr. Cesa says.

Two off-net comedies already generating excitement are Paramount Television Group's "Fra-sier," which makes its syndication launch in the fall of 1997, and Warner Bros.' "Friends," which breaks the next year. In fact, "Friends" could net a record-setting $5 million-plus per episode in station licensing fees.

Like "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You," these shows appeal to the young-adult audiences advertisers love, and could work equally well in prime access or late fringe slots.

Despite the lack of excitement in syndication, especially compared to last or next year, one industry insider says advertisers won't suddenly pull their ad dollars from the medium.

"If you have syndication plans, you won't change. You wouldn't not plan syndication if it's part of your buying," says one agency media buyer.

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