Special Report: Syndication

NEW YORK Even in death, Merv Griffin remains a player.

One of television’s greatest innovators, Griffin, who passed away last month, was, of course, the genius behind the Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune franchises, syndicated by CBS Television Distribution—both of which remain sturdy staples of syndicated TV. In recent years, game shows took a backseat to personality-driven talk shows, and the likes of Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and Ellen became household brands.

And while talk remains a driving force of syndication, the premiere this season of Merv Griffin’s Crosswords from Program Partners and Temptation from Twentieth Television; plans for a syndie version, possibly next fall, of NBC’s big prime-time hit Deal or No Deal, from NBC Universal; and the runaway success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, via Disney/ABC Domestic Television, have analysts smelling a trend and predicting a resurgence in the game show—even though ratings for new entries have been tepid at best.

“We may be seeing a reemergence of the game show in syndication,” says Bill Carroll, vp, director of programming at Katz Television Group. “We’ve seen a lot of recent success lately with Deal or No Deal and [Fox’s] Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? on network TV. In syndication, so much depends on where and when shows clear. But Deal’s network success, along with the launch of Crosswords, is a great sign going forward.”

Seconds Brad Adgate, senior vp/research at Horizon Media: “Some games have really been thriving lately; there hasn’t been a really successful game show in syndication since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. So we’ll have to see what develops with this new crop. The only possible downside to that is that game shows tend to attract an older demographic.”

Whether or not gamers become the next big thing, analysts forecast moderate but steady growth in the syndication sector for the near future. Veronis Suhler Stevenson projects barter syndication to ring up $3.19 billion in 2008, a 4.7 percent increase over this year’s estimated $3.05 billion. Zenith- Optimedia projects 1 percent growth next year.

Next year, the one-two punch of the presidential election and the Beijing Olympics is expected to lift all electronic media, including syndication. In such cycles, explains Carroll, “demand tends to be high, and there are only a finite number of spots available. Because of that demand, there may not be as much opportunity in spot TV, which could then drive some national marketers into syndication.”

Leo Kivijarv, vp, research director at PQ Media, which works with VSS on its syndication projection, adds: “The syndication market has always functioned like a see-saw, just like the stations do. There does seem to be a mindset with advertisers that they just have to get on TV [in election and Olympics years]. And syndication typically benefits from that too.”

While still a dominant force, talkers have had a sorry track record of late. A string of shows built around the likes of Jane Pauley, Tony Danza and Megan Mullally bit the dust. Even last year’s chatty Rachael Ray was not the breakout success many had anticipated. “Syndication hasn’t had that watercooler series lately,” says Kivijarv. “And there isn’t too much in the pipeline that really excites me. But the [revenue] trends will continue to go up because syndication has a pretty loyal audience.”

Considering that game shows like Crosswords and Temptation are off to a slow start, talkers could see a resurgence going forward, insiders say. The current season saw only one new strip—NBC Universal’s The Steve Wilkos Show, helmed by the shiny-domed former Marine and erstwhile security chief for Jerry Springer—making this one of the slowest years for launches in recent memory. But at least two new talk shows are in the works for fall 2008, a Twentieth Television strip featuring comic Steve Harvey and a chatfest helmed by actress Bonnie Hunt from Warner Bros.

Wilkos, along with TMZ, a spinoff of AOL’s wildly popular celebrity-gossip Web destination being distributed by Warner Bros., are the best ratings performers among freshman strips at this early start of the current season.