TV stations play the syndicated shuffle

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/media critic
Published September 10, 2007

The voice mail was almost frantic, certain that a tragedy was at hand which had not been appropriately explored by Tampa Bay's largest newspaper.

"I'm seeing ads saying Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! are going away," said the caller. "These are the most popular game shows of all time. What's going on here?"

This is a question I've faced several times a day as WTSP-Ch. 10 continues running ads informing viewers that Inside Edition and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire will take the Wheel and Jeopardy! time slots beginning today.

The good news for fans: Wheel and Jeopardy! are just moving up the TV dial a bit, taking up residence at WFTS-Ch. 28 starting today - the result of a very specific effort by general manager Bill Carey when he came to the station more than three years ago.

"Getting those shows was one of the first things I did when I got to the station," said Carey. His hope: to boost ratings for WFTS's late-night newscasts by placing ads before the tremendous audiences generated by Wheel and Jeopardy!.

Syndicated series are a unique animal in the TV universe: Sold individually to television stations across the country, they can appear on the ABC affiliate in one city and the CBS station in another.

At one time, they were a gold mine for whoever owned the shows, helping to make billionaires of Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and Wheel and Jeopardy! creator Merv Griffin.

At WTSP, where the station uses a 5 p.m. broadcast of syndicated powerhouse Dr. Phil to build audience for their 6 p.m. news, spokesman Pete Nikiel was frank about why the two game shows are leaving their air.

"WFTS just outbid us," he said, declining to reveal how much the station offered. "We put together what we thought was a fair bid, and they offered more. Which is how it goes . . . We rode those shows hard for a long time."

The syndication business isn't quite what it used to be. Years ago, a flood of new talk shows, game shows and newsmagazines started up every fall, which names such as Leeza, A Current Affair and Tempestt.

But while some of the veterans still manage to hang on - Jerry Springer just signed a three-year deal after completing his 16th season on-air - the spread of the Internet, the strength of cable TV and a cratered sitcom industry have severely reduced the size and visibility of today's syndicated fare.

Still, each area broadcast station has a few major changes coming today, the unofficial start of the syndicated TV season. Here's what's in store:

WFLA-Ch. 8

Today show's fourth hour, noon weekdays: It's not a syndicated show, but WFLA is airing the new fourth hour of NBC's blockbuster morning program at noon, to avoid moving its local talk show Daytime and its 11 a.m. newscast. The move also forces Montel to move to 1 p.m. and Days of Our Lives to 2 p.m.

WTSP-Ch. 10

Inside Edition and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, 7 and 7:30 p.m. weekdays, respectively: With Wheel and Jeopardy! gone, the CBS affiliate has tapped these replacements. Repeats of both also air at 9 and 9:30 a.m., respectively.

WTVT-Ch. 13

TMZ, 7 p.m. weekdays: Named for the 30-mile zone surrounding Hollywood - considered the showbiz world's epicenter - this is a televised version of the crackling celebrity news Web site, which uncovered the Michael Richards n-word video and first reported Mel Gibson's drunken driving arrest.

The Insider, 7:30 p.m. weekdays: Tabloid TV news show, originally developed as a segment on Entertainment Tonight, hosted by tabloid news perpetrator Pat O'Brien.

WFTS-Ch. 28

Merv Griffin's Crosswords, 9 a.m. weekdays: The last game show created by Griffin before his August death, followed at 9:30 a.m. by reruns of Jeopardy!.

Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, 7 and 7:30 p.m. weekdays: Syndicated TV's longtime game show successes find a new local home.

WMOR-Ch. 32

Family Guy, 6 and 6:30 p.m. weekdays: Reruns of the popular Fox animated show hit syndication here.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent, 8 p.m. weekdays: NBC may have moved original episodes to the USA Network, but syndicated reruns will air here.

Reno 911, 11 p.m. weekdays: Reruns of cable series have become more popular in syndication, including this COPS spoof from Comedy Central.

WTTA-Ch. 38

Temptation, 1 and 1:30 p.m. weekdays: Based on an Australian remake of the old game show Sale of the Century.

The Steve Wilkos Show, 3 p.m. weekdays: Jerry Springer's lead onstage security guy - yes, you read that right - gets his own talk show. Maybe I'll get one next.

WTOG-Ch. 44

Judge David Young, 11 and 11:30 a.m. weekdays: The Miami native and former Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge is touted as the first openly gay man to have his own court show. The press materials promise "justice with a snap." Really.

Two and a Half Men, 6 and 7:30 p.m. weekdays: CBS's most successful current sitcom debuts in syndication. Expect many fewer snaps here.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.