Tribune Entertainment, R.I.P. (1982-2007)

Company to live on as ad-sales operation only

The company that launched its first syndicated show in 1982 with At the Movies featuring Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, has closed its doors.

Tribune Entertainment’s syndication division shuttered a few days ago, ending its station sales (distribution) operations, with three executives from its Chicago office laid off. However, its advertising sales unit will continue to operate. Tribune Entertainment was initially based in Chicago, but moved the bulk of its operations to Los Angeles in 1996.

This comes as Sam Zell is closing in on his $8.2 billion purchase of Tribune Co. The move marks a major reversal from what was reported last spring, when Zell met with Tribune Entertainment executives and seemed to indicate that the syndication division would ramp up again with first-run programming.

Tribune launched with mostly weekly shows in the 1980’s with At the Movies, British import Dempsey & Makepeace, and U.S. Farm Report, and took over the syndication duties of Soul Train.

It took a big step in 1987 by launching its first-ever strip, a talk show hosted by Geraldo Rivera, with help (from the sales side) from Paramount. The strip helped launch the sleaze era of daytime TV, highlighted by a brawl that took place on his show in November 1988 between civil-rights activists and white supremacists, in which a chair broke Geraldo’s nose and landed him on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

In 1989, with help from Paramount, it launched The Joan Rivers Show in syndication. In 1991, it took station sales of Geraldo and Joan Rivers in-house, with a launch of another syndicated Geraldo Rivera-hosted strip, Now It Can Be Told.

But trouble began in 1992 when Told folded and a high-profile late-night talk show strip from Dennis Miller failed. Joan Rivers’ syndicated daytime show was relaunched in January 1994 as a talk/shopping hybrid and was shown the door after six months.

While the company continued to pump out successful weekly shows like Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda, the company’s efforts to launch a first-run strip continued to falter with the failures of The Charles Perez Show and Buzz!. The company lost its only first-run strip on at the time when Geraldo Rivera decided to end his talk show in 1998.

When the weekly hours ran their course, demand for action hours in syndication dried up, leaving Tribune with little presence in high-viable weekend time periods. Tribune continued to struggle in the first-run strip arena with the quick demises of Talk or Walk and Beyond with James Von Praagh.

Tribune did secure rights to syndicate three of Fremantle’s game shows when that company left the syndication business in 2001, but two of those programs were quickly canceled and left Tribune with only Family Feud, which changed syndicators this season when Debmar-Mercury won the rights to the show.

Another blow for Tribune came when Don Cornelius Productions shut down production of Soul Train in 2006, leaving the program entirely in reruns. Soul Train, which began in Chicago on WCIU-TV, ran in syndication for 35 years. An annual Christmas special, The Soul Train Christmas Starfest, isn’t airing this year, and the future of other Soul Train specials – including The Soul Train Music Awards – is unknown.

The future of current Tribune product, including American Idol Rewind and U.S. Farm Report is up in the air, though Fremantle can always find another syndicator for Rewind while Farm Report and Soul Train reruns could likely be on their way out.

Tribune though, is expected to continue to sell ad time for Debmar-Mercury’s South Park repeats in syndication.

updated at 11:20 a.m. on 2007-12-19 (add Feder link)