Resurgence in syndication means more product

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After what many considered a relatively quiet year for first-run syndication last year, 2008 looks to be a bit more lively, with several first-run series already set for a definitive launch -- and numerous others being offered up -- heading into NATPE's annual Conference & Exhibition at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas.

Only a couple of first-run series had been considered a lock for a fall launch at this time a year ago, compared with at least five series that have already announced clearances this year. And that's not counting the dozens of others in development from syndicators both major and independent that will be touted at this year's NATPE confab.

"For the first time in several years, more shows are being offered from more sources than ever before, so I think syndication is alive and well," says John Weiser, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Television, which has decided to sit out this year's NATPE but is still bringing its own new offering to stations -- court show "Judge Karen" -- this fall. "Everybody big and small is getting into the game, across every genre."

Court shows are still going strong, he argues, while others point out that game shows seem to be making a bit of a comeback. And everything from traditional talk shows to comedic clip shows to interactive puzzlers are being offered up this year.

That's good news for NATPE, which will bring together an anticipated 8,000 attendees and 400 exhibiting companies to its annual confab -- on par with last year's event.

"It's a great and fertile time for people who create video content," NATPE president and CEO Rick Feldman says. "What we try to do at NATPE is to provide an environment where the whole business can get together in a very clear way to discuss things from the entire head down to the end of the tail in terms of being able to monetize content."

Of course, not every new syndicated offering will find a home on the airwaves, but the number of companies offering up shows this year recalls a not-so-distant past before vertical integration led to a dearth of independent syndicators in the marketplace. Along with the major distributors, those set to bring product to NATPE this month include Debmar-Mercury, which was acquired by Lionsgate in 2006, Program Partners, Trifecta Entertainment & Media, Mighty Oak Entertainment, Litton Entertainment and Radar Entertainment, among others.

"There are a few more things (in development) because we have a few more companies out there, in addition to the majors, that are coming out with product and pitching to stations," says Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming at station-rep firm Katz Television Group. "But if you look at what will likely get on air, there was ultimately half a dozen last year, and half a dozen will end up getting on the air this year."

Among the first-run shows that have already announced clearances are NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution's Howie Mandel-hosted game show, "Deal or No Deal"; CBS Television Distribution's "Dr. Phil" spinoff, "The Doctors"; Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution's daytime talker "The Bonnie Hunt Show"; Sony's "Judge Karen"; and Debmar-Mercury's game show "Trivial Pursuit: America Plays."

In fact, CBS also is sitting out this year's NATPE, citing swift clearances for "Doctors." Sony's decision to bypass NATPE stems from its decision to put down roots at the Consumer Electronics Assn.'s CES show, held earlier this month in Las Vegas. Weiser also points out that Sony "does business all year round."

Feldman admits that the fact that two major distributors won't be at the confab is a bit troubling.

"When people are part of your lineup for a long time, the fact that they won't be there is definitely a concern, but we're not the only ones (having to adjust to changes in the industry)," he says. "I'd rather they were there, but life goes on. Other people like Radar or Program Partners or Debmar-Mercury come in and take their place."

Indeed, Warner Bros.' domestic division is returning to a booth on the floor this year, with Debmar-Mercury set to occupy the suites where Warners had held court since 2003.

But it's not just NATPE adjusting to the times. For now, the strike doesn't seem to be affecting syndication development, most executives agree.

"It really hasn't had an impact on how we produce television shows -- so many of them are unscripted," says Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development at CBS Television Distribution. "It's just not the type of television show we do, where we're bound to a script."

But distributors have been facing a number of challenges in a highly fragmented media landscape where viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from as well as multiple platforms competing for their attention.

"I would say that, in broad strokes, the things that are really sort of different about this year versus years past is that first-run programming, in order to have a leg up, it has to have a brand and needs marketing extensions," Twentieth Television president and COO Bob Cook says, noting that syndication is a "98% failure business." "To try to bring in a total unknown or a new concept without those things in most cases is a recipe for disaster."

This year, in fact, marks a return to projects with high-profile talent attached -- Mandel and Hunt among them -- after last year, which saw relatively low celebrity wattage. In addition, Steve Harvey and Donald Trump also were among those working with Twentieth Television on projects over the past few months.

Meanwhile, Debmar-Mercury is betting on a popular Hasbro brand -- Trivial Pursuit, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary -- to resonate with viewers. And, in a sign of the times, producers developed the show with a heavy emphasis on audience interactivity, whereby viewers ask the contestants questions via uploads through partner stations' Web sites.

"It's very organic to the 'Trivial Pursuit' format, and anytime you can actively involve the audience in a television show, the odds of both people sampling and staying with it are better," says Ira Bernstein, who serves as co-president of Debmar-Mercury alongside Mort Marcus.

Plus, it's also a bonus for the local stations, which could see increases in Web site traffic as a result.

"It's pretty obvious that the Internet and broadcasting are becoming more combined," Marcus says. "It's like the YouTube/CNN presidential debate (where questions were asked via the Web site). Will we see more of this kind of thing in syndication? Maybe."

Companies like Debmar-Mercury and Program Partners, run by Josh Raphaelson and Ritch Colbert, also say they are benefiting from a changing business where stations and groups aren't necessarily buying syndicated product only from corporate siblings.

"Our experience in the last couple of years dealing with all the major broadcast groups is that they are increasingly source agnostic," Colbert says. "They're looking for the best-quality product with the most utility that they can find."

Program Partners will be at NATPE selling its new court show "Family Court With Judge Penny" and also looking to renew its freshman game show "Crosswords," which last year was sold to the NBC O&Os, among other stations.

Adds Raphaelson: "I think we have a good success rate because we can really focus on our product, and that's true of any independent. Where the majors used to do so many projects, they're doing fewer and, in some cases, none. And sometimes there are cases where majors decide strategically that they don't want to take programming from another major and help that company, whereas those conflicts don't exist when the stations are working with us."

Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which isn't aligned with a station group, argues that it's not always in a group's best interest to buy from a corporate sibling.
"For a vertically integrated entertainment company, the risks often outweigh the rewards when producing for their own station group," Werner explains. "This is because, in essence, they are doubling down on their risk, by underwriting both production costs and high license fees in dayparts that are not central to their stations' profitability. By doing so, they are not focusing their assets on those opportunities that will maximize profitability, and they are increasing their downside risk."

He adds that this creates an opportunity for Warners to supply programming to a variety of groups, and allows the stations to minimize their risk by buying from a company outside the group's parent company.

"By garnering license fees, absorbing the cost of production and marketing, and working with the stations in partnership, we believe that is a formula for success for everyone involved," Werner says.

Meanwhile, the distributors have some good news: The DVR concerns that the networks have don't seem as relevant to the syndicators and the stations airing their programming. While more and more viewers are choosing to watch primetime and other programming delayed on their DVRs, they'd still rather watch syndicated programming live, many executives argue.

Of course, it also helps to have a high-quality product, says Mark O'Brien, founder of Mighty Oak, which distributes "Whacked Out Sports" and "Whacked Out Videos."

"There's a lot of shelf space and a lot of programming out there," he says. "But there's always room for a good show, even from a smaller company like mine. It comes down to the product."

Still, it's not easy for a newcomer to break through. Vincent Dymon's Radar Entertainment entered the syndication business last year with "Jury Duty" and is bringing three shows to NATPE: "Jury Duty" companion "Star Witness," "Teen Talk With India Oxenberg" and late-night talk/sketch comedy/variety show "Godfrey Live."

"I'm up against the muscle of the big studios, and that's a challenge," he said. "But doors have opened a little bit. It's easier (than it was a year ago), but not as easy as I thought it was going to be because the industry is controlled by the major studios. But no business starts overnight. I'm grateful and humble (for how far I've come in a year)."

Despite the competitive nature of the business, many see one success in syndication as a win for everybody. In fact, the plethora of companies offering product this year doesn't worry Hank Cohen, partner and CEO of Trifecta, which is bringing out off-net series "Punk'd" and recently took over distribution duties on "American Idol Rewind" from Tribune Entertainment.

"There's room for everyone," he said. "I don't think our success lessens or changes because of others doing business. I think results breed opportunity, which breeds more results."
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