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Analysis

More Shows, Fewer Viewers Fuel Syndicators' Struggle

Cable and the Internet siphon daytime audience, but the search for the next 'Oprah' continues.

October 21, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When are low unemployment, increased Internet usage and the proliferation of cable channels potentially a bad thing? When your livelihood depends on trying to entice people to watch daytime television.

While the major networks breathe sighs of relief over viewers' willingness to at least sample their new prime-time series, the same hasn't held true for the syndication marketplace, where the present pack of new daytime and late-night shows is generally struggling.

The reluctance of viewers to embrace these programs will be monitored extra closely during the next month, which coincides with the November rating sweeps. Low-rated series failing to deliver in key afternoon and early evening time slots could find themselves quickly jettisoned to the wee hours of the morning, when viewing levels are lower and the chance of survival becomes slim.

Though the attrition rate in the syndication business has historically been high, program distributors continue to roll out new series, seeking the enormous riches associated with finding the next "Oprah Winfrey Show" or "Jeopardy!" According to one research executive, more than 120 new Monday-through-Friday series--or "strips"--have been launched in the last decade. A full 80% of those have failed outright, with only about seven attaining hit status.

As always, most of the new shows hew closely to what's currently attracting viewers--giving rise to a slew of courtroom series modeled after "Judge Judy" and "Divorce Court" as well as so-called "relationship" and dating shows.

"It's a very, very tough market out there," said Don Corsini, general manager of KCAL-TV in Los Angeles. "All of the court genre has taken a hit."

Still, creative bankruptcy alone doesn't fully explain the challenges producers face in wooing viewers. Executives also cite lifestyle factors influencing their ability to introduce new series. A low unemployment rate and increase in two-income families, according to one estimate, has taken as many as 1.5 million women between the ages of 18 to 49--considered a key segment of the daytime audience--out of the national daytime viewing pool.

Even stay-at-home parents are busier, with the Internet and other options as alternatives for what leisure and information time they do possess.

Perhaps most significantly, there is simply more choice available on television, which now features several cable channels catering to those women who are apt to be home, including the Food Network, Home & Garden Television, Court TV and Romance Classics. All of these networks made their debut during the 1990s.

"The change you're seeing [has to do with] more fragmented viewing patterns," said Steve Rosenberg, president of distribution for Studios USA, the company behind "Arrest & Trial" as well as Jerry Springer's and Maury Povich's talk shows. "It's so much harder to get any kind of traction."

In a bit of a departure from recent years, this season features few major talk franchises fronted by big names. The most promising newcomers ratings-wise appear thus far to be "Power of Attorney"--which features renowned lawyers such as Gloria Allred and Christopher Darden representing ordinary people in what amount to small-claims disputes--and "Arrest & Trial," offering true-crime stories, hosted by Brian Dennehy and under the stewardship of "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf.

"Power of Attorney" underscores the industry politics that play into these decisions, since the show is distributed by 20th Century Fox and received prominent time slots on the Fox-owned television stations. That won't keep viewers tuning in over the long haul but does provide an advantage in getting their attention initially.

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The bright spots are far outnumbered, however, by new programs that haven't managed to find the light switch. Among the highest-profile disappointments is Paramount's "Dr. Laura," which is drawing lower ratings than the program immediately preceding it in 40 out of 48 major cities monitored by Nielsen Media Research. The show has the added burden of selling advertising time at reduced rates, with many sponsors staying away due to a well-orchestrated campaign directed at advertisers over views expressed by host Laura Schlessinger on her national radio show.

At present the biggest concern for "Dr. Laura" may be weak ratings in New York and Los Angeles, where the show airs at 3 p.m. on CBS-owned stations. The show's poor results locally--frequently reaching less than 1% of homes in the area--also appear to be hurting the subsequent hour of "Judge Judy," which KCBS acquired this fall hoping the franchise will help boost ratings for its early-evening newscasts.

Yet "Dr. Laura" is hardly alone. Few of the new court shows have distinguished themselves, with the docket including "Curtis Court," "Judge Hatchett" and "Moral Court," hosted by KABC-AM (790) personality Larry Elder.

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