Syndication, While Challenged, Remains Essential To TV Stations
Broadcast syndication is not doomed but it’s certainly challenged, according to a panel of TV station and programming executives at TVNewsCheck’s Programming Everywhere conference at NAB in Las Vegas this week. That said, everyone on the panel saw upside even as the business of television continues to be radically disrupted.
“Network primetime was down 17% in November, while from 9 to 5 o’clock, we’re only down 2%,” said Mort Marcus, co-president, with Ira Bernstein, of Lionsgate-owned Debmar-Mercury. “So, the areas that we’re playing in are not nearly as damaged as others, but I think every single area that you operate in television is kind of under attack.”
“It can’t be [doomed] because we have too much shelf space to fill,” said Frank Cicha, EVP, programming, Fox Television Stations. “Syndication isn’t the highest thing on the list that people care about as far as [retransmission consent fees], but that’s sort of freeing because you’re not beholden to try and duplicate what happened before. What matters is what kind of product people want to watch, putting that on the air and growing it.”
In the past two years, several major programs have ended, including Warner Bros.’ Ellen, Judge Mathis and People’s Court, Sony Pictures Television’s Dr. Oz, and CBS Media Ventures Dr. Phil and Rachael Ray. Franchise shows such as CBS’s Judge Judy and NBCUniversal’s Maury and Jerry Springer have ended original production and now air on stations only in repeats. And it’s increasingly hard to get a well-produced [read: expensive] show on the air and making money, which means the big studios are producing only product that they feel relatively confident they can get on the air.
“You need to make sure you are producing for a daypart where they have need for quality,” said Zack Hernandez, SVP-GM, U.S. syndication sales, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Sony has a new show in the market this year called Channel Surf, starring Craig Ferguson, that will be produced in the U.K.
“We need to develop for the need as opposed to what we think stations don’t already have,” Hernandez said. “You could only do it the other way when you anticipated a bidding war. And those days are sort of done. And we also need people to be upfront financially and not just say ‘we’d like the show,’ but ‘this is how much we’re willing to pay for it.’ A lot of times, there’s only one customer, so the ‘how much’ matters a lot.”
Debmar-Mercury’s Sherri, starring Sherri Shepherd, is a show that fits that description. Sherri premiered this year after Shepherd and many other guest hosts filled in for an ailing Wendy Williams the prior season. After Wendy Williams ended its run, Debmar-Mercury set up Sherri to fill the space on Fox Television Stations and many other stations across the country.
Earlier this year, stations renewed Sherri for two more seasons, giving that show a good opportunity to grow from the 0.7 live-plus-same-day national Nielsen household rating it’s currently averaging. According to Marcus, Sherri costs $35 million, all in, to produce, and is turning a profit.
“I think the way syndication could get doomed is if all we do is make $5 million or $6 million shows, because at some point the quality is not going to surface. So, I think the business has to support at least reasonable investment,” Marcus said.
In January, syndicators and station groups met at the Fox lot in Culver City, Calif., to discuss the industry’s challenges, and one topic that emerged from that meeting is the need for closer and more honest collaboration.
Debmar-Mercury and the Fox Television Stations have long partnered to develop, test and launch shows, including Wendy Williams and others. But now, other syndicators — that once approached all competitors as mortal enemies — are taking a page from that book to produce and distribute shows, like Fox and CBS are doing on Pictionary, starring Jerry O’Connell. It also includes station groups, that have worked together in the past to produce shows — such as Right This Minute, which ran for 12 years — but which need to be willing to run shows produced by other groups in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
“I think we need to have more cooperation within the station groups,” said Dave Howitt, SVP of programing, Sinclair Inc. “In the past, there’s been a hesitancy to take that on, but I think you’ll see station groups do more cooperative ventures going forward because we need to get to a national platform to make the show successful.”
In a unique partnership, Sinclair is working with CSI creator Anthony Zuiker to develop a slate of shows that Sinclair expects to sell in national syndication for a fall 2024 debut.
One way stations are managing having less programming from which to choose is by adding more news. In many cases, they prefer this, because they get to keep the ad inventory, but there’s a limit to how much ad inventory the market can support.
“There’s a cost-benefit analysis we do when a show is canceled or if we have a show where it’s getting a little cost-prohibitive to keep renewing it,” said Tom Zappala, SVP, content and programming, E.W. Scripps. “We look at other opportunities in the marketplace and at our competitors. It’s really a strategy issue.”
“What you never want to do is make those kinds of impulse expansions and then have to pull them back later,” Cicha said. “Political drives so much of what we do, and there’ll be plenty of news expansions out there. But we’d like to look at new formats as well.”
Station groups, like Scripps, also are starting to produce original content, such as Bounce’s Act Your Age, to feed their diginets and FAST (free ad-supported television) channels. Some of that content could feasibly end up in broadcast syndication.
That said, some shows that stations produce are specifically designed to serve their local markets and perhaps that’s where they fit best.
“We don’t really look at national as being the endgame,” Cicha said. “I think that leads to rushing it a little bit. When you get in this rush to be everything for everybody, you end up being sort of nothing for nobody, so we want those original local programs to work within those markets.”
Looking ahead, expect more big names to try their hands at syndication because it’s a platform where they can define, own and expand their brands — on the air, on digital and on social.
“The one thing that’s awesome about syndication is that big talent can come in,” Marcus said. “Right now, if the talent goes to a network or streaming services, they get their weekly license fee and their producer fee, but they don’t own the show. We believe that syndication is one thing that is still left for them. We’re seeing it in some of the deals we’re going to announce later with some big names. Talent is attracted to the fact that they can actually own the show with us and if the show becomes a hit, they can really make money.”
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