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First-Run Syndicated Series Are Flexing Their Muscles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Somewhere between an acclaimed drama like “ER” and a B-movie falls “Air America,” starring muscle-bound Lorenzo Lamas as a CIA agent running a commercial airline in Central America. The series, which began airing locally Oct. 4 on KCAL-TV, arrived to far less fanfare than many network shows, but it’s guaranteed to last longer than many more-hyped series.

In other words, “Air America” exists in the first-run syndication market, an alternate TV universe feeding programming to the masses in the form of game shows, talk shows and hourlong dramas. Along with series from the cable networks, such as USA’s “La Femme Nikita,” the shows tend to look somewhat downscale and are widely regarded as schlocky stepchildren of broadcast network fare.

But original cable and syndication series have nevertheless been growing in number, spurred by demand for Hollywood product overseas and the ever-fractionalized TV viewing audience.

Syndicated series, which distributors sell to stations market by market, include the popular “Xena,” “Hercules” and “Earth: Final Conflict.” Over the last several weeks, new shows have arrived in droves, including “Stargate SG-1,” “The Crow: Stairway to Heaven” and “V.I.P.,” starring former “Baywatch” pinup Pamela Anderson Lee as the head of a personal security firm catering to the rich and famous.

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They’re good examples of what flies in the syndication market--shows with big guns and big explosions. Action and sci-fi, in fact, are the syndication market’s bread-and-butter--not least because the material transcends cultural and language barriers. An Uzi is an Uzi, after all, no matter your native tongue.

And while syndicated game shows (revamped versions of “Hollywood Squares” and “Match Game”) and talk shows (“Donny & Marie,” “Roseanne”) have also arrived of late, those don’t sell as well overseas.

“A show about a girl who follows her sweetheart to college [i.e., WB’s “Felicity”] is culturally an American show. But a show about a guy who blows up in outer space, that can be shot with a greater open mind about where it can be shown,” says Peter Sussman, president of Alliance Atlantis, whose roster of shows in first-run syndication include “Earth: Final Conflict,” “Psi Factor: Tales of the Paranormal” and “Night Man.”

Two weeks ago, Sussman headed to Cannes for Mipcom, a semi-annual convention where distributors such as Alliance Atlantis, MGM Television and Rysher Entertainment sell their wares--television shows--to buyers from around the globe.

“Both sci-fi and action translate very well to foreign markets, and that’s where they get [back] a lot of their budget,” says James Parriott, who saw his network drama “Forever Knight” live on via the USA Network after it was canceled by CBS.

Sussman says his shows have an average budget of $1 million per hourlong episode, half of the $2-million-and-up per-episode price tag on some ABC, CBS and NBC dramas. Unlike network shows, which often begin with modest orders of six or 13 episodes, first-run syndicated shows are produced in bulk (episode orders tend to number 22). Many are shot in Canada, where the dollar is strong and the government offers tax credits for hiring locally. There are 10 cable and syndicated series, for instance, currently shooting in British Columbia, including USA’s “The Net,” Showtime’s “Poltergeist” and Disney’s “So Weird.”

Marc Scott Zicree has written for both network sci-fi series (Fox’s “Sliders”) and those in syndication (Castle Rock’s “The Lazarus Man”). He says the relatively low stakes for shows in syndication can work in their favor.

“If you look at the success rate of science-fiction and fantasy shows [on network TV],” he says, “most die on the vine because they get six episodes and out. Whereas in syndication, they have to guarantee 22 episodes. Twenty-two gives you enough time to gather an audience. If ‘The Twilight Zone’ had been given six episodes to prove itself, it would not have succeeded.”

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Alison Bingeman has been writing for the cable and syndication markets for the last decade, during which she’s piled up credits on 12 series, none of them a broadcast network show.

While Bingeman admits the shows for which she writes tend to have what she calls “the wow factor,” some have been creatively rewarding. Bingeman began her career wanting to write for network drama, but found the possibilities limited. The job pool was favoring comedy writers, she says, which forced her to turn to cable.

“I’ve never been a sitcom writer and I don’t want to be a sitcom writer, but there were few interesting one-hour [network] dramas,” she says. “They were talking about the death of the genre. But there were some half-hour [cable] shows like ‘Hitchhiker’ and ‘Hidden Room’ that were great. It was like writing mini-features, where you create your own characters.”

Bingeman is currently working with Alliance Atlantis to develop “The Lawnmower Man,” based on the 1992 movie, into a series. Sussman is hoping that name recognition will help entice buyers.

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“More and more, we’re gravitating to titles that market themselves,” Sussman says. “Back in the ‘60s, when there were three channels, your show only had to be good to be watched. In today’s world, a really good show that nobody knows to watch is not worth making. The show has to be readily marketable.”

That’s why spinoffs of movies (“La Femme Nikita,” “The Net,” “The Crow”) have become popular. Indeed, among the new crop--"Mortal Kombat Krusades,” “Highlander: The Raven,” “The New Adventures of Robin Hood"--none leaves room for the imagination. The trick, instead, is finding them.


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