'Dr. Phil,' 'Millionaire,' 'John Walsh' arrive, but heat factor is lacking

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Coming off the toughest year in TV advertising since World War II, buyers and sellers of commercial time on syndicated TV programming are expecting a modest upturn in the 2002-03 upfront ad marketplace.

At present, word on the street is that overall spending will rise 5% in the national TV marketplace this go-round. Executives on both sides of the negotiating table say the current second-quarter scatter market suggests a rebounding upfront. "The fact the scatter market is extremely strong is a positive sign. It has to be good," says Howard Levy, exec VP of Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Television Advertising Sales.

Consensus among syndicators is that the business may achieve 3%-5% gains in prices (cost per thousand viewers) over last year in a moderately paced upfront market that will start percolating in June.

There are skeptics, such as Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media North America, Los Angeles, who thinks those projections are overly optimistic. "My feeling is [media] budgets will not be up," he says. "If you [as a seller] are looking for huge pricing gains, there won't be enough money to sustain that."

a brutal slide

However it plays out, it's hope for a business, recovering from a brutal slide in 2001-02 to an estimated $1.7 billion in overall syndicated revenue, a 38% drop from the previous season. All want to shut the books on 2001.

In strong years, media buyers often strike upfront deals in syndication before the broadcast networks' fall programming presentations in May in New York.

Last year, that didn't happen, with syndication coming up short as the economy soured. When the syndication market didn't move, advertisers sought-and got-15%, 20%, even 30% cuts in prices, though that didn't apply to every title.

Syndicators "were stunned," says former media buyer Gene DeWitt, newly installed president of the Syndicated Network Television Association and formerly chairman-CEO of Zenith Optimedia Group in New York, a joint venture of Publicis Groupe and Cordiant Communications Group.

wide range

Mel Berning, president of U.S. broadcast for Bcom3 Group's MediaVest Worldwide, New York, believes prices could vary dramatically, with top-rated syndicated shows fetching solid increases while lesser properties fall flat. "If anything this year is like last year, it's that there will be lots of different tiers of pricing," he says.

Tim Duncan, senior VP at TVi Media, a New York-based ad sales company owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, estimates that last year only 55% of total ad spending was committed in the upfront, in contrast to the typical pattern of 70%-75%. "This will be a more normal year," predicts Mr. Duncan.

As ad executives anticipate a stronger upfront, particularly for top broadcast networks CBS and NBC, they foresee more dollars shifting into syndication, based on improving ratings and a renewed dedication by syndicators to promote syndication as an ad medium collectively, something they've neglected in the past. "They figured out that selling individually hadn't helped them as much as needed last year," SNTA's Mr. DeWitt says.

Only a handful of new first-run syndicated series are in the offing this time. Of those, some are familiar, such as King World Productions' "Dr. Phil," a spinoff of "The Oprah Winfrey Show"; Buena Vista's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," the five-day-a-week version of ABC's once red-hot prime-time game show; and "The John Walsh Show," a talk show from General Electric Co.'s NBC Enterprises, featuring the crime victim turned crime fighter and host of Fox's "America's Most Wanted."

Judging by the comments of media buyers, nothing is generating much heat. Says TVi Media's Mr. Duncan: "It was not reckoned as a vintage year for program production." When asked if he sees any new hot hits coming, Initiative's Mr. Spengler replies, "I don't want to be negative."

Of course, most new shows in syndication fail, even the lucky few that gain wide exposure in significant markets. Enduring syndicated shows, such as "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" and "Live With Regis & Kelly" and "Oprah," leave little room (despite the departures of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and "Sally Jessy Raphael").

More of the `70s

Network hits moving to reruns in syndication include Warner Bros.' "Will & Grace" and Carsey-Werner-Mandabach's "That `70s Show."

Some buyers and sellers declined to talk to Advertising Age, citing market sensitivity; others spoke only for background. In those conversations, it became clear that the dynamic between buyers and sellers is shifting. Sellers traditionally held the advantage in talks, but media buyers, in this age of consolidation, have increased clout-at least the two sides are closer to equals.

TV syndicators are optimistic that business will rise in the upfront, but memories of last year are too fresh for Clinton-era hubris.

"We [the syndicators] learned our lesson, and no one is too crazy this year," says Steve Mosko, president of Sony Corp.'s Columbia TriStar Television Distribution. "Last year was payback. That wasn't good for anyone," he adds.

So despite the signs of recovery, both sides are nervous, coping with the business world's equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by the wild swings of the past two years. "The marketplace really hasn't found an equilibrium yet," says MediaVest's Mr. Berning.

Focus on

Syndicated TV

Top 2001 spender: Procter & Gamble Co. at $155.5 million, up 19.4%

Top 2001 media buyer: MediaVest at $457.9 million, up 35.8%

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