Where Talk Is Cheap And So Are Sitcoms And Game Shows

There won't be a lot of happy campers at the National Association of Television Program Executives sales convention in New Orleans, which kicks off on Jan. 14. Sure, such industry heavyweights as Paramount Communications Inc. and King World Productions Inc. won't be sweating it. But most TV syndicators aren't too thrilled at the state of the $3 billion marketplace. After a decade of torrid growth (chart), prices for their offerings are rolling back to 1984-85 levels. Why? "There are just too many shows and too few time slots for them to fill," explains Barry Thurston, president of syndication for Columbia Pictures Television.

A few things happened toward the end of the Roaring Eighties. Not only did the growth of the number of independent TV stations slow to a crawl, but many indies also are now part of the Fox Broadcasting network. So they don't have to rely as much on syndicators for programming. Moreover, there was an explosion of new offerings in the past few years, as studios and other suppliers rushed to cash in on the big money. And right now, a recession in advertising has hit TV stations hard. They're no longer as willing to pay big fees or take chances on new shows.

A falloff in demand hit sales of reruns of hour-long dramas and movie packages a few years ago. As a result, more of these have been sold to cable, where the money isn't as good. Now, sitcoms are also in for a slump--and some may end up on cable as well. "That will drive down the price for all of them," says John Rohr, associate director of programming for station representative John Blair Communications Inc.

BYGONE ERA. During the Eighties, breaking the $1 million-per-episode barrier was no big deal. But of the dozen or so sitcoms to be offered at the convention of program executives, consultants figure that just a few--Married . . . With Children and perhaps Roseanne--have a chance at such numbers. The heady days of a $4 million fee for an episode of The Cosby Show or $2.5 million for Who's the Boss? are over. "Those were the heights of craziness," says Dick Kurlander, programming vice-president at Petry Television Inc., another station representative.

The market for original, or made-for-syndication, programming isn't much better. Last year, syndicators came to the convention with a slew of game shows--most of which flopped. This year, first-run syndicators are peddling a flurry of new talk shows--an area that's already glutted with the likes of Geraldo, Oprah, Sally Jesse, and Phil. The only show being named as a possible winner: Paramount's The Maury Povich Show, starring the former anchor of A Current Affair.

There's more bad news. The Federal Communications Commission is expected to rule this spring on whether the Big Three networks may own and syndicate their shows--which they have been barred from doing since 1970. Many in the industry expect the FCC to let the networks in on the action. All of a sudden, the squeeze on syndicators could get even tighter.

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