Syndicated TV: Seeing Slightly Better Ratings

As NATPE meets this week in New Orleans, syndicated TV is seeing slightly higher ratings over last year and assembling a slate of programs heading into 2003 and even 2004.

“The ratings haven’t been eroding. Collectively, the ratings for syndication have remained similar to what they were a year ago,” said Brad Adgate, SVP/director of research at Horizon Media. Syndication’s average ratings are 2.4 this season, compared to a 2.3 a year ago.

That’s good – and bad.

“It’s certainly nowhere near what ratings were five or 10 years ago,” Adgate observes.

But some of the syndicated programs popular then (and long before) remain on the air. A look at the top syndicated programs shows a lot of perennials in the bunch, including three on 20 years or more: Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and Entertainment Tonight. The list also includes sitcom favorites like Friends, Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond plus first-run syndication programs like Oprah and Judge Judy.

“It’s shows that are tried and true. These shows are holding their own,” said Adgate.



There haven’t been many breakout syndication hits this season. The only clear winner? Dr. Phil.

“When you end up with the second most-successful talk show in the November book behind Oprah, that has to be considered a success,” said Bill Carroll, vp/director of programming at the Katz Television Group in New York.

Susan McClellan, national media manager at Empower Media Marketing, said some of Dr. Phil’s success is due to his longtime association with Oprah Winfrey and his exposure on her show. But she and others said the show has been able to stand on its own as it must to survive, with or without Winfrey.

But as McClellan lists the celebrities who are scheduled to have their own talk shows next season – Sharon Osbourne, Ellen DeGeneres, Rita Rudner, among others – she’s skeptical.

“What do they have to add, what are they going to bring to the table that’s not already out there,” McClellan asks.

Carroll said the initial numbers for the syndicated Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are encouraging but he doesn’t think they’re going to start a trend toward more game shows. The best-performing newcomers in syndicated sitcoms are Will & Grace and That 70s Show, he said. A perennial that had been in decline but has now seen some upswing is Home Improvement, the Tim Allen show that went off the air in the late 1990s. Carroll said Home Improvement has been boosted by airings on TBS Superstation.

Consolidation has hit all of the media business, and syndication is no different. What was once a lively mix of large, medium and small syndication companies has mostly given way to firms that are part of the big media giants. That’s led some to say there’s fewer choices now than in the past. The big media giants – which also own and operate big stations in key markets like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia – have started a trend toward syndicated shows that are specifically created for and cleared on their stations.

“They’re creating shows with the specific needs of the stations that they own in mind,” said Carroll.

One of the prime examples: When Rosie O’Donnell announced her retirement, Buena Vista created for their large-market stations The Wayne Brady Show. Last September, it had what’s called a limited rollout, not airing in every market but instead premiering on key markets including ABC in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York. Fox does the same thing with shows like Texas Justice, Good Day Live and EXtreme Dating.

McClellan said that while her agency has tailed off on its syndication buying in the past year due to the bad economy, she said syndication is still a good buy depending on the clients’ goals. Like every media, she said syndicated has to work for the clients’ goals.

“If you have a client that can’t afford primetime, if you look at some of the off-net stuff, it’s a good way to get that prime feel with a cheaper CPM,” she said.

Adgate said one sector of syndication – the action-adventure market like Xena, Baywatch and Hercules – isn’t as big now as it was. Part of it is the lack of time slots for the shows, particularly on the weekend. Another factor: The WB, on whose affiliates a lot of that action-adventure landed, took two more hours away from syndication in extending the primetime Sunday daypart from 5-7 p.m.

“Those are time periods that were pretty good for a syndicated program that’s been counterprogrammed to sports,” Adgate said.

Will the current reality craze spill into syndication, beyond the dating, court and talk shows we already have?

An early indication will be Starting Over, the one-hour, five-day-a-week reality program produced by NBC Enterprises and featuring several women dealing with varying issues who live in the same house.

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