Syndicators prepped and stockpiling fare

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After early projections pointing toward a sharp drop in the network upfronts, syndicators are now counting their blessings. * Early estimates now say upfront revenues will break relatively even with last year's record $2.75 billion despite both a shaky economy and uncertainty over potential action by creative unions. Last year, the TV syndication industry was actively courting the free-spending dot-coms to shift advertising into the

syndication market. Now, a year later, syndicators and stations are only too grateful that they weren't dependent on their revenues.

Analysts are projecting anywhere from single-digit growth in the advertising upfront markets to a dip of 3% as the buyers and sellers finagle their positions and prices. Rates for some shows will be up while others fall, they say, in essence canceling each other out for the overall category. Meanwhile, many syndicators are counting on the scatter market to make up any lost revenues, especially if any strike appears set to affect the networks' fall schedule.


"We went right from shooting this season to production on next season in preparation of this," says Steve Mosko, president of Columbia TriStar Television Distribution. "Being able to sell original episodes has now become a huge positive for us, and from an advertiser perspective it will be business as usual to have proven programming already in place."

Indeed, buyers and sellers alike admit the fear of any strike has already shifted focus for a number of advertisers toward the mostly strike-proof syndication, including several companies that had never before looked at the programming genre.

"When I talk to advertisers, the biggest issue of the moment is that everyone is anticipating an iffy economy and advertisers need to feel comfortable that they are spending their media dollars wisely," says Allison Bodenmann, president of the Syndicated Network Television Association.

Last year, Procter & Gamble Co. led the pack in syndication advertising with more than $130 million spent in the market, followed by General Motors Corp. at nearly $115 million. Buyers suggest that the two companies will again approach those levels when the year is through in both upfront and scatter advertising, despite the economic slowdown.


"In recent years, package-goods companies have bought syndication very efficiently, and now other sectors are saying, `Hey, maybe we should get in on the action,"' says Ms. Bodenmann. "They realize that this is an investment and a smart thing to do in the environment that we're in. The medium still has relatively high ratings, especially compared to cable, and there's nowhere else where they can reach these dayparts."

As a result, several syndicators are quietly hoping to take advantage of the opportunity to air first-run and off-net series on schedule while networks shift toward untested reality programming or continued repeats of current fare for the duration.

"Syndication is made up almost entirely of reality game, talk and court shows," says Mercury Entertainment President Ira Bernstein, who will unleash upcoming action hour "Tracker" this fall. "Meanwhile, action hours are taping early and could have new episodes airing through the fourth quarter. If I'm the buyer, why wouldn't I divert some of the budget toward syndication?"

Buyers have already perked up their ears. One ad agency executive notes that advertisers are already wary of the fall and are paying attention to discounted rates in the market as well as slightly increased rollbacks on cost-per-thousand ad rates on other long-running series.

"We've decided not to wait on the scatter market because we know syndicated series will air on schedule and there are deals to be had in a number of dayparts now," says the agency executive, whose clients include retail stores and electronics.

Already a number of upcoming series are drawing attention. Recent hits such as Tribune Entertainment's "Gene Rodenberry's Andromeda" and Universal Worldwide Television's "Blind Date" will almost certainly draw more attention to their upcoming companion shows, respectively, "Mutant X" and "The Fifth Wheel." In addition, buyers are giving high grades to King World Productions' "The Ananda Lewis Show" despite the poor outings of new talk shows in recent years, with Paramount's "Dr. Laura" being the latest victim in the recent talk-show cancellation crush.


Although the likes of "Andromeda" and "Mutant X," as well as Columbia TriStar Television Advertising Sales' "VIP" and "Sheena," would normally be vulnerable to the strike threats, studios prepared ahead of time to ensure new episodes for the new season. A number of action hours were taped outside North America with non-American stars and are considered unaffected by the strike because they are outside the reach of the Screen Actors Guild.

Syndicated strip fare, on the other hand, is considered reality programming and is mostly strike-proof, although SAG members such as "Oprah's" Oprah Winfrey, "Hollywood Squares' " Whoopi Goldberg and "Live! With Regis and Kelly's" Regis Philbin may opt to sit out anyway in sympathy for the strike. However, no plans have been decided at this point, and most syndicators expect to move forward as planned.

"Our shows are really not affected dramatically by ... SAG walkouts," notes Matt Cooperstein, senior VP-domestic TV syndication at Universal Television. "We hope that there's really no sympathy walkout from AFTRA [America Federation of Television & Radio Artists] members. That is the only thing that can affect our schedule, although we have backup plans for our advertisers. Either way, I think syndication will benefit in upfront advertising, as will cable. Anybody who doesn't have to rely tremendously on scripted shows has an opportunity to capitalize this fall."

Universal's "The Fifth Wheel" leads the way for the fall's hottest syndication trend, reality/relationship shows. Universal scored big this year when sophomore series "Blind Date" climbed to a lofty level, just below "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" in the key adult demos. As a result, not only did Universal spawn another series in the genre, Paramount, Warner Brothers and Columbia TriStar followed suit.

Advertisers are already giving "Wheel" the edge, simply because it comes from the producer of "Blind Date"; the two shows will be paired in a number of markets, Mr. Cooperstein says.

Paramount Domestic Television will bring celebrity analysts to the mix with its date show "Rendez-View," Warner Bros. Domestic Television may be boosted by a potential prime-time edition of "Elimidate" on the WB, while Columbia TriStar will deliver "Shipmates," pairing couples on a weekend cruise.

On the off-network side of the industry, even advertisers love "Everybody Loves Raymond," which will debut this fall. After a lackluster year that saw the likes of "Spin City" and "Sabrina the Teen-age Witch" both falter in their off-net debuts, advertisers are lining up to snag a spot on the five-days-a-week airings of "Raymond."

"Right now, it's the only sure-thing out there, and you know off-net series with the credentials of `Raymond' will deliver 99% of the time," says an advertising player.

In the end, however, most syndicated series are playing a waiting game with advertisers as the summer approaches. Should the strike come through, advertising executives will cash in on the opportunities presented. Otherwise, according to one ad sales rep at a syndication company, "we get paid to work 12 months a year and historically, we'll rally and make the money back in the scatter markets. I'm not at all worried this year."

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