Syndication: Talk shows don’t come cheaply

Erosion, erosion, erosion . . . that is all television executives talk about these days. While network and local broadcasters are losing sleep over whether more viewers are changing channels to the myriad cable networks or switching on home computers, syndicators are somewhat more stoic about the steadily evolving TV universe.
The fact is syndicators are sporadically able to turn a desert into an oasis when it comes to niche programming opportunities. The most recent evidence comes in the form of Buena Vista Television’s The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show and Columbia TriStar’s Vibe, new talk shows building beachheads in late night. And in daytime, Warner Bros.’ hit, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, has spawned a handful of new feel-good talk shows being paraded out for the upcoming season.
“As much as Keenen may have taken some younger demos from CBS’ The Late Show with David Letterman, most of our new ratings are coming from the ‘other’ category-cable,” notes Mike Shaw, executive vice president of advertiser sales for Buena Vista.
By launching in August, Keenen and Vibe were able to establish strong early sampling among younger viewers, which also provided the impetus for Buena Vista and ColTriStar to make fairly aggressive rating and CPM projections. According to New York media-buyer estimates, both shows earned $15,000 to $20,000 per 30-second commercial. That means each show has the potential of earning $50 million in gross barter ad revenue, buyers suggest.
“Keenen and Vibe have effectively recaptured ground previously held by Arsenio Hall as well as doubling the revenue of what syndication had been earning in late night,” says Tim Duncan, executive director of the Advertiser Syndicated Television Association.
In daytime, the success of The Rosie O’Donnell Show has fueled a resurgence of the once-embattled talk-show trade. When the dust finally settled on last April’s upfront, daytime syndicated series brought in $290 million for the 1997-98 season, up a robust 22 percent over the previous season.
As for prime access, the most lucrative daypart in syndication, earnings are expected to increase only slightly. With the 6-8 p.m. access block valued at just over $500 million in ad revenue, there has been little upward movement due to the high number of solidly entrenched strips. Dating back to the mid-1980s, King World’s Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! have remained atop the syndication ratings and now lay claim to station time periods well into 2001.
Indie distributor Worldvision Enterprises, owned by Spelling Entertainment, is one of a small group of syndicators trying to break into access with some outside-owned programming. Starting this month, it has launched its board-game-based Pictionary strip in 158 markets, representing 92 percent U.S. broadcast coverage. Although a bulk of Pictionary’s station clearances come in daytime, Bob Raleigh, senior vice president of sales for Worldvision, estimates that 40 percent of its U.S. coverage is evenly split between the early-fringe and prime-access dayparts.
On the weekends, the off-network rollouts of The X-Files and NYPD Blue will likely offer a rare opportunity for station programmers and syndicator Twentieth Television. Contrary to a 10-year trend in which dramas have opted solely for cable network runs, The X-Files and NYPD Blue are also simultaneously entering syndication with a bounty of early-fringe, prime-access, prime-time and late-fringe weekend clearances from stations.
Although some buyers suggest that Twentieth is projecting a 10-plus rating for The X-Files’ double-runs in syndication, Dave Barrington, vice president of advertiser sales for Twentieth, declined comment on the studio’s exact projections.
“Certainly, if [The X-Files] is doing a 23 or 24 share on the network,” says Barrington, “we fully expect that its double-runs will do cumulative numbers comparable or better than [Paramount’s] Star Trek: The Next Generation did previously in syndication.”