Viewers Give Syndicated Fare The Cold Shoulder

The new syndication-television season has begun with a whimper, at least as far as debut ratings are concerned. And media buyers are not happy.

According to Nielsen Media Research data, only one of the seven new first-run strips this fall—Pat Croce: Moving In, from Sony Pictures Television—is maintaining the ratings of its lead-in. And only one strip—Buena Vista’s The Tony Danza Show—is on par with the year-ago-time-period average.

Dr. Phil started strong, but the Larry Elder Show has faltered. Home Delivery, Life & Style and Pat Croce aren’t even cracking a 2 household rating. And NBC Universal’s The Jane Pauley Show, arguably the highest-profile new entry, is faltering after only two weeks, averaging a 1.7 household rating and a 5 share, off 23 percent from the year-ago time period.

Even Paramount’s The Insider, which should be benefiting by a good portion of access time periods and adjacency to parent series Entertainment Tonight in many markets, is lower than expected, at a 2.0/5. That’s down 5 percent from last September. (Overnight ratings are based on a weighted average of all telecasts.)

“I am disappointed that none of these shows, not a single one, has sparked any real interest,” said Billie Gold, associate director of programming services at Aegis Group’s Carat USA. “The only way to break through the clutter, particularly with so many other programming options, is to offer something unique. Nothing in first-run syndication this fall screams originality.”

“It’s still a little early, but there are clearly some early disappointments so far,” agreed Chris Magel, vp, associate network director at Publicis Groupe’s Optimedia. “Jane Pauley is a vibrant personality, and I would have thought her show would have done better. Maybe they just are not producing the show correctly and need to go back and retool it. The Insider is a good show that the audience just hasn’t found yet. We have a client with a major investment in the show, so we are hoping it works.”

A few media buyers, who wouldn’t speak for attribution, said it is troubling that syndicators forced them to buy time on these new shows in the upfront if the buyers wanted time in their most popular returning shows. But for others, it’s simply another way to do business. “I don’t mind buying a [syndicated] show that I know is going to fail, if it means getting more time in a top-rated show,” one buyer said. “At least I can get my [client’s] money back.”

One media analyst had a more dire prediction. “I think syndication is heading for a downfall,” warned the analyst, who also declined to speak for attribution. “If I were an advertiser, I would be concerned with spending my dollars in the upfront with ratings like these, which are truly abominable. I would take the wait-and-see attitude before I invest in anything new.”

Other observers said it’s too early in the season to scream “fire sale.” “In all fairness, no one can come to any definitive conclusions after just four days or a few weeks,” said Garnett Losak, vp, director of programming at Petry Television. “If word of mouth begins to spread similar to The Ellen DeGeneres Show last year [which launched the week of Sept. 8, 2003 with a 2.1/6 but grew about 15 percent as the season progressed], there could be eventual momentum. If the show is good, hopefully viewers will find it.”

And Steve Sternberg, evp/director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA, said, “I never understood why anyone thought Jane Pauley was that popular. Tony Danza either. It’s tougher for a new talk show to make immediate headway. Dr. Phil did, but even Ellen is only a modest performer. People aren’t ready to turn away from Oprah or Regis and Kelly or some court shows, so it’s hard for a newcomer to compete.”

In fact, the two shows that have generated the most buzz this fall are two that have been around for years: King World’s veteran talker Oprah, with her massively hyped and publicized Pontiac G6 giveaway, and game-show standard Jeopardy! with multi-week champ Ken Jennings.