All quiet on syndie front before the start of NATPE

Distributors more cautious this year

Despite a flurry of last-minute announcements, the syndication business has been relatively quiet in the days and weeks leading up to this week's NATPE Conference & Exhibition, which kicks off today in Las Vegas.

While recent years have been filled with high-profile talk show entries and other strips, many of which have locked up major clearances ahead of the confab, this year's official crop of new product on sale at NATPE is significantly smaller. The only first-run products confirmed from the major syndicators are Twentieth Television's game show "Temptation" and daytime program "The Morning Show With Mike and Juliet"; Sony Pictures Television's court show "Judge David Young"; and, announced Monday on the eve of the conference, Warner Bros.' "TMZ" strip derived from Telepictures Prods. and AOL's popular online showbiz news and gossip site

At this point last year, major distributors had already announced seven first-run shows for launch in the fall. Bill Carroll, vp-director of programming at station rep firm Katz Television Group, said this year is unusual in some ways and not so unusual in others.

"It is in that in the last few years, we've seen a wide array of programs being offered, most of which if they got to this stage, they probably got on the air," he said. "But given the few key time periods that are available, it's not surprising that there would not be a large number of offerings. You're also looking at fewer majors, thus fewer opportunities."

And it doesn't help that many of the high-profile entries in recent years failed to make it to a second season. In fact, many estimate that fewer than 10% of new first-run syndicated shows succeed. That's another reason, Carroll said, the distributors were a bit more cautious this year.

"It's inevitable that given the overwhelming lack of success that the majors would be leery to put another expensive product out there that most likely would not achieve their goals," he said.

One industry expert said there's a "paradigm shift" well under way that the distributors haven't completely caught up with.

"The syndicators keep rolling out expensive shows that go away quickly," the expert said. "If you're going to produce these shows, but the economics in daytime have changed, why not produce something that takes those changes into account?"

In the off-net arena, there are a couple of brand new entries — the Comedy Central series "Reno 911!" and "Chappelle's Show" — that MGM just announced will be available for a fall launch. In fact, many predict that with the lack of broadcast network shows becoming available for syndication in the short term — right now, nothing is officially on the horizon for fall 2008 — that off-cable series will become really hot properties.

As for what the lack of new product means for stations, John Nogawski, president and chief operating officer of CBS Television Distribution, predicts that it might reach a point where stations are choosing to rethink their programming strategy.

"If there isn't the adequate amount of new product to fill open time periods, I think people will start leaning toward second runs of some of their more successful shows, and you'll start to see upgrades," he said. "Why not take a successful show and run it twice rather than take a risk on something new or renew something that's failing? Another alternative might be that we'll see more library shows possibly filling some of those time periods."

In the cable world, the scarcity of upcoming off-network sitcoms isn't a big worry for one network. That's because Leslie Chesloff, senior vp planning, scheduling and acquisitions at Lifetime, said she looks for a good mix of comedy and drama acquisitions, including recent buys such as the sitcoms "Reba" and "Still Standing" and the dramas "Medium," "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." She added that it helps to think outside the box.

"I do have concerns," she said. "We've had great success with off-net sitcoms, so I do wish there were more out there. But even a show like 'Ugly Betty' — that for me can play like a sitcom."

Another group of companies thinking creatively are the boutique distributors, who pointed out that they are taking unique opportunities available to them.

"There are a lot of established shows in the strip space particularly, and there's ever more media consolidation, which means the major studios are consolidating program offerings for their own outlets," said Josh Raphaelson, who founded Program Partners with Ritch Colbert and will be selling off-net series "Degrassi: The Next Generation" at NATPE. "But we do know these long-term franchises are beginning to deteriorate on a local level, so if we can be creative in how we offer new properties so that they can incubate and have time grow, that's the opportunity for us."

NATPE runs through Thursday at the Mandalay Bay Resort.