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Talk fare out to fix what ails ya

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Look for less reality in syndication, plenty of escapism and more talk shows aimed at healing instead of stirring up dirt.

Agency media buyers say there's hope for issue-driven shows with charismatic hosts. Also, syndicators claim to have put more money into research.

"This business has traditionally been about rolling out shows after an idea was written on a napkin, but increased competition is forcing us to do a lot more testing," says Bob Cook, president-chief operating officer of News Corp.'s Twentieth Television.

"We want to do more pilots and test them against real audiences before we go out to do presentations," adds Ed Wilson, president of NBC Enterprises, which is betting on a syndicated version of "Weakest Link," featuring George Gray as a more "contestant-friendly" host than Anne Robinson.


It's hard to find any syndicators taking big risks in a dubious market. Many are traveling familiar territory with market-tested concepts, such as Twentieth Television's hourlong talk show "The Rob Nelson Show," whose host is described by Twentieth as "a young Phil Donahue."

New talk-show rivals also include King World Productions' highly anticipated "Dr. Phil," hosted by Phil McGraw, who gained fame by ladling out advice on King World's "The Oprah Winfrey Show." "Caroline Rhea," from AOL Time Warner's Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, is aimed at filling the void left by the departed "Rosie O'Donnell Show."

General Electric Co.'s NBC Enterprises is recasting two TV faces into new talk shows. "The John Walsh Show" stars the host of "America's Most Wanted." Not surprisingly, the hourlong talk show will focus on crime and society. Another tough guy, Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball," is getting a daily half-hour show.

"With John Walsh and Chris Matthews we have very solid personalities," Mr. Wilson says.

"What's really driving the new programming trends this year is the consumer's desire for escapism," says Allen Banks, exec VP-media director of North America at Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.

Sometimes genres blur. For example, is the new "Matchmaker Mansion" from Warner Bros.' Telepictures Distribution a reality show, a dating show or simply escapist fare?

The half-hour "Matchmaker Mansion" hits the escapism button by bringing a group of different single women to a luxurious mansion each week, to be entertained by bachelors.

Hard-line reality offerings, like shows inspired by network TV's "Survivor," are fading.

Another new entry that might fulfill a need to escape-on an astral plane, if not a jet plane-is a daily series from Tribune Entertainment titled "Beyond With James Van Praagh," hosted by the psychic and author. The show comes on the heels of Studios USA's popular "Crossing Over With John Edward."

What's hurting the chances for new syndicated TV offerings is the ongoing lack of good on-air time slots, observers say. "Off-network series like `Everybody Loves Raymond' and `Friends' get all the great time periods," says Jason Kanefsky, VP-network negotiations for Havas Advertising's Media Planning Group, New York.

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