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Tv Syndicators' Brave New World

March 04, 1985|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

Robert Bennett, president of Metromedia Broadcasting, was motivated by the skyrocketing price tag for network series in syndication. Current comedies, such as "Family Ties" and "Cheers," are commanding as much as $75,000 per episode from each station buying them for future syndication.

"For our stations alone, they were getting (a total of) $300,000," said Bennett, whose seven big-city stations include local independent station KTTV Channel 11. "At that point, I said, 'Hey, this is crazy. For $300,000 to $350,000, we can produce TV ourselves."

Lurking behind the high price of off-network shows are some statistics that frighten independent station owners.

First, the number of independent stations has risen in the last 10 years from 78 to 214, creating "an insatiable appetite for product," according to Robert Jacquemin, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Paramount Domestic Television and Video Programming.

Second, network series that are viable syndication candidates--those with at least 67 episodes (about three seasons' worth) and preferably 100--are in woefully short supply, thanks to the networks' tendency to cancel series that don't immediately climb up the ratings chart.

Only eight sitcoms are expected to enter syndication between now and 1990, down from about 22 half-hour shows in the last five years. They are: "Gimme a Break," "Facts of Life," "Silver Spoons," "Cheers," "Family Ties," "Newhart," "Webster" and, barring any downturn in its fortunes, "The Cosby Show."

Metromedia already contributed to the pool of potential syndication properties by co-subsidizing and distributing new episodes of "Too Close for Comfort" and by broadcasting "Fame" after its cancellation by NBC in 1983. Creating and producing all-new series was the next logical step.

Station group owners Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst Broadcasting, Storer Communications Inc. and Taft Radio and Television Co. Inc. teamed up with Metromedia Television to form the New Program Group, whose premiere production is "Small Wonder." The consortium comprises 24 network affiliates and nine independents covering 45% of the nation's TV viewers.

Chicago's Tribune Broadcasting Co. also is getting into first-run production. TV NET, a partnership between the Tribune Co. and Viacom, is an affiliation of 125 TV stations nationwide that will air prime-time, first-run programming (hence the name T ribune V iacom NET work). For now, it will present major theatrical releases never before seen on commercial TV, but future plans call for original programming.

INDAY, financed by LBS, is the name of a two-hour block of programming that subscriber stations will broadcast each weekday beginning this fall. The four half-hours within the block are a news show put together by the Tribune Co. and three magazine-style shows: "All About Us," hosted by Ron Hendren and produced by game-show mogul Dan Enright; "What's Hot, What's Not," produced by Lorimar and hosted by Fred Willard and Melanie Chartoff, and, from Columbia Pictures Television, "The Great Life," the pilot of which featured "St. Elsewhere's" Ed Begley Jr. as host.

LBS President Henry Siegel considers his company "a catalyst, if you will, in most of the projects that are happening in first-run syndication." LBS helped guarantee funding for "Fame," "Too Close for Comfort" and "It's a Living" and also backs "Tales From the Dark Side" and three animated children's shows. The company finances shows by "bartering"--in this case by retaining 40% to 50% of each show's advertising time for sale to national sponsors while local stations sell the balance themselves.

"I like to look at the networks as the three largest barter firms, and we're the fourth," Siegel said.

Will the various ad-hoc networks of syndicators and station owners ever rival the Big Three as generators of episodic TV and entertainment programming?

"My feeling is, if the networks, with all the talent they have behind them, can't produce successful half-hour sitcoms, I doubt if anyone else will be much more successful," said Chuck Wolfertz, Eastern sales manager for Victory Television, which will syndicate all current shows from MTM Productions, including "Newhart," "Remington Steele" and "Hill Street Blues."

Most syndication executives say that they would prefer to buy off-network shows-- if they were more plentiful and lower-priced. But given the current market, they see independence from the networks as a boon.

"The fact that the networks cancel shows quicker than they should is a major hindrance and a financial obstacle--but it also opens up an opportunity to create new programming for syndication," said Steve Roberts, president of 20th Century Fox Telecommunications.

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