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Television Syndication: No longer a Hollywood exclusive

By Wayne Caparas

Television viewers in the Lowcountry may remember that NBC's "Seinfeld" spent nearly an entire season lampooning Jerry Seinfeld's television deal with the major network. The thesis of Seinfeld's parody proved that even a show "about nothing" can be sold if: a) you can get your foot in the door, b) you can convince the decision makers that you will draw a specific audience, and c) your concept can attract sponsors to create the windfall profits for which "the biz" is famous.

Creating and selling syndicated TV shows can bring in big profits, even if the players are based in the Lowcountry and not in the TV mecca of Hollywood. As cable, satellite and Internet networks worldwide increase at a record rate, local media professionals are tapping into the exploding demand for lower budget shows aimed at ever-narrowing audience demographics.

Who's on first

While all the media attention is on the motion picture industry in the Carolinas, television professionals who work primarily with video formats are now investing as little as $1000 per show to enter the entertainment lottery.

Studio Plus, a respected advertising agency and production company with offices in Mt. Pleasant, has successfully syndicated "UCTV" (Used Cars Trucks and Vans) in several markets, and is currently packaging "Cookin' Kids" to pitch nationally.

According to General Manager Steve Simmons, Studio Plus has invested approximately $5,000 per show to create 13 episodes of "Cookin' Kids." Based on industry comparables, Simmons expects to make a return in excess of $300,000 per 13-episode block if the show is picked up for national distribution.

Another homespun production putting the finishing touches on its own 13-episode package is "Welcome Aboard, a sailing and yachting TV magazine created by Dutch Courage Productions. In contrast to the "Cookin' Kids" model, Dutch Courage produced a two-show pilot to land national distribution with PBS before producing the entire package.

Executive Producer Dick Reed, who would not disclose costs per episode, projects "Welcome Aboard" will in time average $100,000 per show in revenues. As a well-established entertainment producer, Reed is in a strict minority of TV professionals who can win major network distribution through direct contacts.

The big leagues

It is no minor advantage to regional TV producers that Litton Syndications, Inc. maintains its offices on Sullivan's Island. The mid-sized distributor of American TV productions is highly respected within the international entertainment community and has working relationships with all the major networks and studios from coast to coast.

With corporate giants like Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom employing vertical integration to create show concepts from soup to nuts, it is becoming increasingly difficult, despite the exploding demand for new shows, to get anywhere near decision makers. Litton is among the few industry players that can get a foot in almost any door.

Founder and CEO David Morgan launched Litton in Baltimore a decade ago and, after six years of success as the industry leader in "kid friendly" programming, Morgan moved the company to Charleston. He has since assembled a team of TV professionals of the caliber found only in New York or Hollywood, including V.P. of Acquisitions Dale Snyder, who began his career with NBC in New York.

Like the rest of the Litton team, Snyder admits he could pretty much live anywhere in the country, but after discovering Charleston in the early 80's, he made relocating his family to the area one of his primary career goals. "It was as if I had stumbled upon the lost city of Atlantis," he recalls.

The move has proven successful. Today Litton is the distributor of several hit television shows including "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures, which, after just 6 seasons, is seen in 94 percent of American markets and is the nation's #1 weekly show in first-run syndication.

In addition to the Jack Hanna series and a host of shows targeting younger audiences, Litton is also the distributor of the Emmy-winning feature film series "Desperate Passage" and the popular show "Toughman, which will enter its new season this month on Fox's cable network, FX.

As for the Studio Plus show "Cookin' Kids, Dale Snyder concurs that the show has national potential, as Litton Syndications is currently reviewing the project for possible representation to the Networks.