Syndication Upfront: Healthy But Slow Going

With the broadcast upfront done and cable lurching toward a conclusion, now it's syndication's time in the sun.

But a month after the upfront broke with deals involving the upper-tier cable networks and following the broadcasters' respectable if not record-breaking results, syndication hasn't reached the fever pitch that marked television upfront buying last year. There seems to be less urgency in the market compared to last year at this time--deals are being made, but some buyers say it's still a relatively sedate market.

"No one's jumping on it," said one executive of a media agency, who discussed the syndicated upfront on condition of anonymity. Several buyers said there wasn't a lot to report on the market so far; others declined to comment while negotiations were ongoing.

One syndication industry executive, who asked to remain anonymous, disputed a feeling in the marketplace that it was moving slowly or hasn't found its momentum.

"The market was never stalled," the executive said, noting that the last of the broadcast networks took several weeks, and buyers and syndicators began talking the next day. The executive said the syndication upfront would substantially be concluded by the weekend of July 4th.

"We never expected a repeat of last year," the executive said.

The executive said that it seemed that CPMs would be up this year, as well as volume. But at least one buyer said the syndication had yet to be played out, and that it might end up flat to slightly up.

This year's upfront comes following a strong pitch by the Syndicated Network Television Association, a syndicated trade group, to get the word out about syndication. As upfront presentations began earlier this year, SNTA and its big corporate members took the show on the road to tell agencies that syndicated TV is picking up ground where broadcast TV is losing it. Especially hyped was its programming (a mix of original and proven network hits), double-digit increases in gross ratings points since 2001, and a schedule that was original year-round long before the broadcast networks discovered it.

Media agencies fresh off negotiations with cable and broadcast are insisting on one set of prices--and the syndicators, who want to get their share of the TV ad spend, are waiting for the prices they've set.

"They're holding firm," said one buyer of both sides.

Syndication gets lauded for its aggregate ratings and its performance in demographics that aren't easily reached, as well as the familiar nature of some of its highest-rated programming like Entertainment Tonight, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy.

"They certainly have some key properties that deliver, that represent by and large the top-tier programming. There's a comfort level that advertisers have with these shows," said Bob Flood, executive in charge of emerging technologies and a veteran buyer for Publicis' Optimedia. "They are the tried and true." But he points out that advertisers and agencies shy away from some of the other programming--such as ElimiDATE--that might have a younger viewership, but also presents some content issues.

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