Syndicators ready for NATPE kickoff

Nancy Grace, Nate Berkus among talent bringing new shows

LAS VEGAS -- Nancy Grace, Nate Berkus and a cluster of court shows will drive, or hover over, the action on the floor of the NATPE confab this week.

Grace, the cable personality and former prosecutor, will front a syndie strip for CBS called "Swift Justice," which is already cleared on 90% of stations across the country; Berkus, an interior decorator and Oprah Winfrey favorite, is just now being revved up for clearances by Sony; and several outside contenders in the third category are being pitched by such boutique players as Litton, Trifecta and the irrepressible comic-cum-distributor Byron Allen.

The coterie of court shows is a sign of the times: They're the most cost-effective form of syndie product, and they can easily piggyback onto existing legal-oriented strips. "Judge Judy," for example, has been such a powerhouse for so many years that the gaveler herself, Judy Sheindlin, will be one of the four recipients Monday night of the annual Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award. (The other three honorees are NBC's Jeff Gaspin, advertising guru Irwin Gotlieb and producer David E. Kelley.)

"The economics of court shows are great. There's not a market in the country that doesn't air a block -- sometimes all the stations in a market boast such a block," said longtime rep Bill Carroll, who runs the programming arm of Katz TV. He counts 12 such shows on the air at the moment, with "Judge Karen's Court" (Litton), "Judge Heck" (Trifecta) and "America's Court With Kevin Ross" (Allen) among the latest to try their luck at swaying the station jury. Litton's entry recently cleared WPIX in New York, giving it at least a nudge out of the box.

Still, CBS with "Swift Justice" is the only strip that, as NATPE opens, can be declared "a firm go" for fall.

"No robe, no gavel, no wig -- just Nancy's big personality and her passion for justice taking on topical issues in a new, modern setting. We think audiences are really going to respond to the format," said Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development at CBS Television Distribution.

Among the heavyweight Hollywood syndicators, several are sitting the market out, with no new strips in contention -- a clear indication of just how ad-deprived the local station biz has become and just how costly bringing out an ambitious original concept can be to a studio's bottom line. (There's also the obvious fact that the majors do not rely on trade shows nearly as much as smaller indie suppliers, who benefit from concentrated face time with potential clients.)

In any case, for all players, tried-and-true programming that has already proved itself on cable or network or on foreign broadcast is the easier route to take in parlous financial times.

Thus, NBC will be putting its weight behind a syndie launch in September of its sibling cabler Bravo's glitzy reality franchise "Real Housewives of ..." (already cleared in 93% of the country), while Twentieth is touting a syndie version of "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"

Other contenders hoping to drum up business during the three-day confab are MGM, which is wheeling out syndie rights for the Discovery Channel series "Cash Cab"; Debmar-Mercury, which will test the waters with a hit Brit talker called "The Jeremy Kyle Show"; and Ritch Colbert's Program Partners, which is parlaying another foreign-originated talker called "Steve & Chris" (which airs in Canada on the CBC).

MGM's Jim Packer said "Cash Cab's" selling point is that it's "an easy, fun way to watch TV and it can fit into almost any slot." The Lion has cleared some 20 markets of varying sizes.

Almost all the new shows, cleared or yet to be trotted out, are licensed on an all-barter basis, another telling reminder of how challenging this part of the business has become.

"Used to be that cash was king in syndication -- and I do mean it as a pun on Roger King's name," is how one syndie veteran put it. He was referring to the late head of King World, who was legendary for extracting big cash sums from stations for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"

As for Winfrey, her show will be the backdrop for chatter at the Mandalay Bay about what happens to her slot once she abdicates in September 2011. High-ups at ABC -- whose stations helped launch and profited from the show over the years -- will be cogitating for months as to how to fill the void. "Ellen," "Dr. Phil," "Dr. Oz" and "The View" are all defensible options, or stations could expand their already strong local newscasts. Disney's own syndie unit, however, is not officially exhibiting this go-round at NATPE, though its topper Janice Marinelli will be on hand; several other majors also are sending reduced contingents.

On the off-net front, the major syndicators have come off a busy year, taking out a number of sitcoms to the market and managing surprisingly healthy prices.

Warner Bros., for example, has cleared HBO comedies "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage" as well as its own "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and has on the rerun runway its sophomore hit "The Big Bang Theory."

Twentieth has already rung up the register on "How I Met Your Mother" and "American Dad" (which is cleared on Tribune stations) as well as renewals for "Family Guy." Given that the syndicator is participating at NATPE in a case-study session devoted to its latest hit sitcom, "Modern Family," (which airs on ABC), it wouldn't surprise if this exercise isn't a prelude to taking that comedy out to market this year.

For its part, Disney will be prepping "Brothers & Sisters" for the rerun market as well as "Dancing With the Stars" for a likely cable play. The Peacock has just a few markets left to clear on its rock-solid comedy "30 Rock."

However, since the syndie market is so slippery and recessionary clouds still haven't lifted, NATPE organizers have turned their attention to shrinking the convention floor to a more modest size and concentrating on the confab portion of the trade show.

Monday kicks off with a keynote by Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who will talk about the state of cable; what Winfrey is doing with their joint venture, the OWN channel; and how recent executive changes at his company are affecting the Discovery brands.

Other sessions include a creative keynote with former Disney topper Michael Eisner; a Q&A with Gaspin (just out from under the Conan O'Brien kerfuffle); a think tank on storytelling with "Cougar Town" creator Bill Lawrence; a cooking competition for delegates with top reality TV chefs; and the inevitable workshop with the Twitter folks.

Calling it "a transitional year" before moving the show to Miami in 2011, NATPE organizers are hoping attendance is on par with last year's slimmed-down total of about 6,000 delegates.
comments powered by Disqus