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Just like a vampire in "Buffy," lower ratings and ad demand are sucking a lot of the life out of syndication ad pricing this season.

Prices of all returning syndicated shows have taken a dive in the 2001-02 season, according to Advertising Age's annual survey of syndicated TV pricing. The industry leader, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution's "Friends," sank 16% to just over $130,000 for a 30-second spot.

One of the bigger stories was the descent of the off-network sitcoms this season. Columbia TriStar Advertiser Sales' "Seinfeld" dropped 20% in pricing; "The Drew Carey Show" (Warner Bros.) sank 31%; and "Spin City" (Paramount Domestic Television) was off 62%. Big ratings falloffs were a big reason for the drop of most off-network shows.

"There was this feeling that since network pricing is down, you could buy network cheaper than syndication," says Aaron Cohen, exec VP-director of national broadcast for Horizon Media, New York.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" (King World Productions) marked its first year of syndication as a ratings success. Through Nov. 11, "Raymond" was earning a 5.8 Nielsen rating-third overall among off-network shows after "Friends" and "Seinfeld." In pricing, "Raymond" came in fifth overall in Ad Age's survey.

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While syndication has always been cheaper than network, with costs per thousand about 15% to 20% lower, network still has a strong advantage. A syndicated show doesn't run in the same time periods across the country, and that can dampen its ad reach.

"Syndication is going to take a hit because networks can offer specific date and time," says Tim Duncan, senior VP at TVi Media, New York, a syndication ad sales company owned by Hubbard Broadcasting.

Typically, syndication, as well as network and cable, could withstand ratings reductions as long as cost-per-thousand viewer prices continued to climb. But this year those costs fell for the first time in about 10 years. Many shows typically witnessed a 20% to 40% reduction in CPM prices.

In the past, syndicators tried to package many different types of shows that might not always necessarily fit into a media buyer's plans. As a result, this year-with ad prices dropping-media buyers had greater leverage and left syndication programs in droves.

"Packaging has something to do with it," says Doug Seay, senior VP- director of national broadcast for Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney, New York, in response to the way prices dropped. "They forced you to take the good shows with the bad. It soured people on the medium."

No categories were immune from the pricing swoon-not even big talk shows. "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" (Warner Bros.) sank 39%, and "The Jerry Springer Show" (Studios USA Domestic Television) fell 30%. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (King World) fared better, off only 13%. "Live With Regis & Kelly" (Buena Vista Television) was touched for just a 9% loss. That show boosted in ratings this season-one of the industry's few improvements.

"Judge Judy" (Paramount), the highest-ranked court show, was off 24%. Other court shows also tumbled-"Judge Joe Brown" (Paramount) dropped 32% and "Divorce Court"(Twentieth Television) lost 28%.

Hourlong shows witnessed some of the same results. Off-network hours "The X-Files" (Twentieth Television) dropped 23%; "E.R." (Warner Bros.) lost 42%; and "Nash Bridges" (Paramount) slid 42%. First-run hours similarly lost ground: "Stargate SG-1" (MGM Worldwide Television Group) was off 40%; "Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda" (Tribune Entertainment) drifted 16% lower; and "VIP" (Columbia TriStar) with Pamela Anderson suffered a 43% drop.

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