Backlot: The Void Left by Oprah

3 BKLOT Anderson Cooper
Alessandra Petlin/August

The CNN anchor leads a crowded market at this year’s NATPE gathering.


On the eve of NATPE, optimism abounds as Anderson Cooper and others look to rule syndicated TV.

Call him “the great Silver Hope.” CNN’s Anderson Cooper — aka the Silver Fox — is among the masses jockeying to fill the gaping afternoon hole that The Oprah Winfrey Show will create in local-affiliate programming in the fall, making this year’s meeting of the National Association of Television Program Executives the place where the syndication business could finally get its groove back.

“Everybody’s confident,” says Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution president Ken Werner, who cites the big bucks recently forked over by TBS and Fox affiliates for his company’s sitcom The Big Bang Theory and the swift pickup of the Anderson talk show by stations seeking something fresh.

 “There will be a new relationship with viewers,” says Cooper, who has been watching tapes of The Phil Donahue Show for inspiration. “I want it to be fun.”

As for how Warners label Telepictures is pitching Anderson, company president Hilary Estey McLoughlin says the emphasis is on Cooper’s “amazing skill set” and “empathy.” She adds, “It’s a rare person who can do this.”

Admittedly, this year’s installment of NATPE — the annual marketplace for syndicated TV sales around the world — won’t swell to the 10,000 or so folks who used to wheel and deal there, but several factors bode well for an upbeat 2011. 

“Stations are coming off a good year,” Katz TV programming head Bill Carroll says. “That means more cash for programs.”

Ad revenue for local stations rose 15 percent year-over-year in 2010, fueled by midterm elections and a rebound in the auto sector. Advertising agency Zenith predicts TV advertising worldwide will tick up 5-6 percent in 2011, which will boost program sales on the global front.

NATPE president Rick Feldman instigated the conference’s move from Las Vegas to Miami to attract more Latin, European and East Coast attendees. At press time, registration was keeping pace with recent editions and should easily top last year’s 5,000, with two-thirds of the delegates from the U.S.

For a decade, first-run has been a victim of its own success, with veteran shows hanging tough and in many cases trouncing newcomers. Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, Entertainment Tonight, Judge Judy and Dr. Phil not only dominate the rankings in their genres but were recently renewed. They and a few off-net sitcoms absorb most of the cash from stations, meaning many projects have recently had to settle for barter-only deals.

Whatever their cash-flow situations, syndicators must show ever more savvy in how they market a new show. Carroll says this is simply because “there are fewer station groups and perennial hits locked in.”

Off-net sales, however, have been buoyant during the past year, especially with cablers picking up shows right off their first year on the air: NCIS: Los Angeles, Modern Family and Glee went to cable networks for healthy per-episode prices. If $800,000 an episode was the norm a few years ago, then $1.3 million is the average nowadays.

Anderson is a good bet to bring the heat in Miami because the show comes to town with 85 percent of the country in its pocket at press time. Stations include Tribune’s WPIX-TV New York and Fox outlets in Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston.

Although Warners is the only Hollywood major with a “firm go” on the eve of NATPE, several players are in the testing phase.

CBS Distribution is parlaying a dating show, Excused, and Lawyers, a daytime contender that could pair with, say, Dr. Phil. On the indie front, Lions-gate’s Debmar-Mercury is plowing ahead (in concert with ITV Studios) with the U.K. hit Jeremy Kyle.

Debmar co-president Ira Bernstein wants to take the TBS sitcom Are We There Yet?  — which he calls “a perfect family-oriented solution” — off-network in 2012. Tribune, meanwhile, is testing a project with Bill Cunningham, an outspoken Cincinnati radio personality, on its WGN America superstation.

Another indie, Trifecta, hopes to steal some Anderson thunder with Last Shot With Judge Gunn, an Arkansas-based “court/soap/talk hybrid,” CEO and partner Hank Cohen says. Host Marianne Gunn will employ an approach that’s about as cutthroat as the syndication game itself: If the drug offenders don’t opt for rehab, she sends them straight to jail.           

NATPE 2011
When: Jan. 24-26
Where: Fontainebleau Resort, Miami Beach, Fla.