MIRRORING RECENT YEARS—decades, actually—the success of syndication remains reliant on the long-term established hits. No other medium can match the durability of syndicated product. These include King World’s Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Oprah and Dr. Phil; Paramount’s Entertainment Tonight and Judge Judy; Buena Vista’s Live! With Regis & Kelly in first-run; and the big three—Friends (Warner Bros.), Everybody Loves Raymond (King World) and Seinfeld (Sony Pictures Television)—in off-network. Even in a season marred by freshman mediocrity (the last new first-run, break-out hit was King World’s Dr. Phil in 2002; Warner Bros.’ The Ellen DeGeneres Show opened at modest levels in the fall of 2003), syndication will not be negatively impacted.

“These are not just individual shows, they’re brands, and their importance in syndication remains immeasurable,” says Brad Adgate, senior vp of corporate research at Horizon Media. “While other facets of the business are challenged by the growing reality of audience losses, overall ratings in syndication remain consistent because of the resiliency of the established product.”

Led by the veteran mix, ad sales dollars in syndication have risen for the fifth consecutive year, and future estimates point to continued gains. According to data provided by PQ Media, total spending in syndication in 2006 is projected to grow 5 percent higher than 2005. In addition, PQ Media estimates growth of 3 percent to 4 percent over the next four years.

“When you program to women over age 35, which is exactly who is watching daytime television, there is a certain comfort level,” says Leo Kivijarv, vp, head of research, PQ Media. “That’s immensely valuable to syndication because these viewers remain loyal to their programs indefinitely. When you program outside that demographic, the shelf life can be shorter.” The sudden absence of the late-night relationship genre this season (the remaining two—NBC Universal’s Blind Date and Warner Bros.’ ElimiDate—were canceled last spring) is a testimonial to that.

Syndication is also a leader in audience retention, according to the Syndicated Network Television Association, with three to four times more retention than network or cable across all demographic groups. And it is the “live” leader, with a 65 percent advantage for viewers watching content as aired over network prime time in TiVo households.

“Eight out of 10 viewers watch syndication live compared to the networks in prime time at not even 50 percent,” says Hadassa Gerber, director of research and systems, SNTA. “And the more people watching live, the greater the interest in the commercials.”

Syndication in 2005-06 boasted a first-run freshman return rate of three for three. But the highest rated was Twentieth Television’s Judge Alex at a modest 2.1 in households; Warner Bros.’ The Tyra Banks Show and NBC Universal’s Martha tied at a 1.6. This season, the early results for new talk shows hosted by Dr. Keith Ablow (Warner Bros.) and Greg Behrendt (Sony Pictures Television) and new court shows Cristina’s Court (Twentieth Television) and Judge Maria Lopez (SPT) point to an even greater reliance on the veteran mix.

According to Nielsen Media Research metered market data for the week of Sept. 11, Cristina’s Court led the quartet with a modest 1.2 rating/4 share (equal to the lead-in and year-ago time period averages). Second was Dr. Keith (1.0/3), followed by Judge Maria Lopez (0.9/3) and Greg Behrendt (0.7/2).

“You can’t obviously judge anything by one week’s worth of metered market data,” says Adgate. “But if there is one show that is likely to succeed, it’s King World’s Rachael Ray, which will benefit by the exposure on Oprah and the best time periods of any new strip.” The Rachael Ray Show is the highest rated of the new first-run mix, with a 2.9/9 in the overnights in days one and two. NBCU’s The Megan Mullally Show averaged a 1.0/4 in two days.

“Even if there are no new hits in a given season, the established shows will continue to carry the syndication marketplace,” says Adgate. “That’s quite an advantage to have.”

Marc Berman writes about all facets of TV for Mediaweek.