Distributors at NATPE Eying Firstrun Fare to Combat Declining Off-Net Sitcoms


The drying up of off-net sitcoms in 2013 and the exit of Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin have syndication stations concerned about what's next.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Some things in syndication are no laughing matter -- most notably the drying up of off-net sitcoms in 2013 and the exit of Oprah WinfreyRegis Philbin and Mary Hart from the first-run fray.

These holes mean stations are getting antsy about what's next -- and they're worried because so few projects are being pitched to them as replacements.

"I just hope Charlie Sheen makes it through to 65," Sean Compton, the president of programming for the powerful Tribune station group, quipped Monday. His group relies heavily on comedy reruns in crucial time slots.

"We are going to have a lot of holes," Compton said in reference to the shows or talent who are exiting the biz in the next 18 months or so.

"We have less available to us now than we did 10 years ago," Compton said.

Sixty-five, by the way, is not a reference to Sheen's age but to the number of episodes a network show has to reach to be viable in the rerun syndie market.

Compton was speaking Monday on a panel called "Does Syndication Have a Pulse?" and was flanked by two syndication distributors who are trying to help revivify the biz: Debmar-Mercury's Mort Marcus and CBS Distribution's John Nogawski.

"We think first-run is going to be getting very aggressive," Marcus said. His company is here at NATPE to boost the clearances of Brit talker Jeremy Kyle to 80-85% of the country, up from the 70% already chalked up.

And Nogawski's CBS syndie unit is doing the same for its dating show Excused, which he said is "a good option" for those stations whose sitcoms are drying up.

"We know what stations spend for those sitcoms and we know what they're spending for Excused," Nogawski said, suggesting what good value there was in such complementary first-run fare.

Meanwhile, Tribune has taken the bull by the horns and will launch its own talker next fall -- one with Bill Cunningham, who is a liberal turned conservative radio talk show host. The launch, which is in essence a glorified test, will be on Tribune's own huge station group.

"If it works, great, we'll go national, and if it doesn't, we'll know it's much harder out there than we thought," Compton said.

As for life without biggies Oprah, Regis and Mary, all three agreed that Winfrey leaves a huge hole in things.

"It'll be hard to find another Oprah," Nogawski said, pointing out that it took a good six months on the air nationally before the biz ever realized 25 years ago what it had.

"That's the same hope we need to have for the next connection. Maybe it won't be as quick as the six months it took for Oprah..." he added.

Regis' exit too is tricky.

"No one is as good at what he does," Marcus opined. "They (meaning syndicator Disney) won't do as well, whoever they get."