Fall Review: New Syndicated Shows Seem Ready to Stick

Jennifer Hudson performed a song from Sister Act in costume during the show’s Halloween episode.
Jennifer Hudson performed a song from Sister Act in costume during her show’s Halloween episode. (Image credit: Warner Bros. TV via YouTube)

It’s early days yet and no announcements have been made, but it’s a safe bet that all of the new shows introduced this fall will return for second seasons.

The reason is not the unadulterated success of any of these syndicated programs. It’s more because of the lack of other choices. Debmar-Mercury’s Sherri, starring Sherri Shepherd, is the highest rated of the batch at a 0.7 live-plus-same-day national household rating, with Warner Bros.’ Jennifer Hudson running a bit lower but often landing in a virtual tie with Sherri

At this juncture, there are very few shows in development for next fall, and low ratings mean low viewer awareness. Both factors argue for keeping shows on the air and giving viewers time to find them rather than churning through programs in search of an audience.

“Awareness is something that used to happen in two or three months, but now awareness is so minimal that it might take a year or more to get the word out,” Debmar-Mercury executive VP, programming Lonnie Burstein said.

As a result, new talk shows Sherri, Jennifer Hudson and NBCUniversal’s Karamo, starring Karamo Brown, are all likely to return for second seasons, as are CBS Media Ventures’ Pictionary, hosted by Jerry O’Connell; Trifecta’s half-hour true-crime viral video show iCrime with Elizabeth Vargas; and Allen Media Group’s We the People with Lauren Lake. Better to stick with the devil you know than to go produce a new one.

That said, can anyone turn a profit at a 0.7 national householding rating and below? According to industry sources, yes, but margins are narrow and growing thinner all the time. 

“Syndication is just part of the landscape,” Allen Media Group chairman Byron Allen said. AMG produces a whole flight of court shows, including America’s Court with Judge Kevin Ross, now in its 13th season; Justice for All with Judge Cristina Perez; The Verdict with Judge Hatchett; Justice with Judge Mablean; and Supreme
Justice with Judge Karen
. Next fall, it intends to launch a seventh court show, Equal Justice with Judge Eboni K. Williams.

“When we produce our shows, they could be on The Weather Channel and then be in broadcast syndication and on our cable network, Justice Central. I think you need to ideally have at least two strong platforms to monetize the content if not three or four — broadcast, cable, international and streaming. It’s very challenging to fund content on just one platform,” Allen said.

“The only way you can monetize these shows is to give them away free to a cable network or a diginet for barter,” Fox Television Stations executive VP, programming Frank Cicha said. “If it was up to me, I would put these shows on everywhere I could for marketing and awareness. But for someone to ever get paid in this other world of digital and streaming, something is going to have to work.” 

Formats Get a Rethink

Broadcast syndication has long been a business model in need of innovation. After the highly disruptive pandemic, necessity has finally become the mother of invention, with shows, syndicators and TV stations all starting to think differently about the business.

For example, this year CBS Media Ventures’ Drew Barrymore went from being produced as a standard one-hour talk show to two half-hours, which TV stations can either run as one half-hour, two back-to-back half-hours that feel like an hour or two half-hours split into two different (or more) dayparts or even across two different stations.

The change was made largely to serve the needs of the CBS-owned television stations, which wanted to add a half-hour of local news. But the show’s producers, including Barrymore, were also willing to try something new.

“The thinking really was to constantly try to innovate and disrupt the format,” The Drew Barrymore Show executive producer Jason Kurtz said. “This is just another way of doing it, sort of observing the audience, how they are consuming and the pace at which they are consuming. It reflects the way people are watching television. It’s a faster pace that feels more digital.”

The change has already yielded positive results for the CBS stations, with the show up 16% in homes and 14% in total viewers. The show is up or even on CBS-owned stations in all of the top 10 markets. Comparing this year’s primary runs to last year, it has improved 7% in households and added 46,000 viewers on average, Kurtz said.

Competing with Barrymore in the talk space are three new entries, Sherri, Jennifer Hudson and Karamo Brown. All are finding their footing, but, thus far, station groups are happy with what they are seeing.

Sherri Shepherd of ‘Sherri’

Sherri, starring Sherri Shepherd, was the top-rated new series. (Image credit: Debmar-Mercury)

Sherri took the crown as highest-rated newcomer after replacing Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams this fall follow­ing a year of guest hosts. Sherri also averages 710,000 viewers and a 0.4 in daytime’s key demographic of women 25-54.

“Debmar did a terrific job with the program,” Cicha said. “Having Shepherd as a guest host on Wendy prior to launch mattered a lot. Her comfort level is rising by the day.”

“Having launched a lot of new shows over the span of my career, Sherri walked out on her very first show of the season as if she’s been doing it for years,” Debmar-Mercury executive VP, programming Alexandra Jewett said.

Jennifer Hudson, which largely took Nick Cannon’s time slots on Fox stations in major markets, has a little tougher row to hoe when it comes to ratings. The show runs earlier in arguably damaged time periods, considering that Cannon averaged a 0.4 national household rating all last year. Jennifer Hudson’s primary run also goes head to head with ABC’s The View in New York and Philadelphia. But Cicha sees a lot of upside in the show.

“When Jennifer starts getting better at her Xs and Os, her charm will start coming through,” Cicha said. “She is likable. She needs to build her curiosity a little bit on interviews, but you’ll start to see that look a little smoother.” 

Hudson, an American Idol finalist who is now an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner, is mostly known as a singer and an actress and is earning her talk-show chops. One of her strengths, executive producer Mary Connelly said, is her ability to connect with the audience, either in the studio or through the TV screen.

“When we as producers just allow her to talk to the audience about the stuff that’s important to her, it is magic in a way that a writer can’t write and a producer can’t
produce,” Connelly said. “You hear her talk about stuff that is meaningful to her and I can feel the audience behind me just leaning in and being fully on board with her.”

Hudson is already learning how to have fun with the daytime audience, dressing up as Sister Deloris Van Cartier for Halloween and belting out a medley of Sister Act songs (opens in new tab), drinking out of a different coffee mug with a different affirmation on it every day and wearing lots of fun fashion that keeps viewers noticing.

“It’s all directed from her,” Connelly said. And now Hudson is going all in on Christmas, her favorite holiday, including a couple of days of holiday giveaways. 

Fox has another new show, Pictionary, starring Jerry O’Connell, added to its game block this year, which it produces and distributes in partnership with CBS. That show is also expected to be renewed.

“Skewing younger than other game shows is good for our business and for the show and for the stations,” said Stephen Brown, executive VP, programming and development, Fox TV Stations and Fox First Run. “The energy of Pictionary and the feel-good nature of it will find its audience.” 

Sherri, Jennifer Hudson and other shows on Fox were set for some ratings interruptions from November 20 to December 18 — and particularly in the first half of that period — as the network aired the FIFA World Cup, making it hard to gauge how they are actually performing. 

Looking ahead, Fox would like to take some swings at different types of programming, including live game shows.

“If you offer live news or live sports, people will come to your platform for that,” Brown said. “We have to create something that is imaginative, important or immediate so that the audience will say that’s worth their time. We’re looking at a lot of possibilities.” 

‘iCrime’ Finds a Niche

One other new show holding its own is Trifecta’s iCrime with Elizabeth Vargas, a sort of viral video take on true crime. The show finds cellphone videos of people committing crimes and then explores them, talking to experts about what actually happened. The show is averaging a 0.5 in households with an average of 633,000 people tuning in. It is up 23% among women 25-54 since its September premiere.

‘iCrime with Elizabeth Vargas’

Trifecta’s iCrime, with news veteran Elizabeth Vargas, has been holding its own. (Image credit: Trifecta)

Part of what is working for iCrime is having an experienced host in Elizabeth Vargas, who was with ABC News for 22 years and served as the co-anchor of World News Tonight and 20/20

“We had perfect timing with this show in that last year all of the groups were going to add a lot of news,” said Kim Sterton, senior VP, national sales manager, Trifecta. “We started out with the big news organizations — Scripps, Tegna, Cox — and they felt it was a good fit because Elizabeth is such a news brand herself. From the get-go, people understood it and saw where it could go on their schedules. It works in a variety of dayparts but really complements what stations are trying to do.” 

“She felt that this is what she does and we told her she could do interviews with experts and have opinions on different clips. And the daytime audience knows who she is,” executive producer Scott Sternberg said. 

Whether stations are happy or not with this batch of shows, they are likely to be what they’ve got for now. Said Cicha: “There certainly doesn’t appear like there are a lot of people lining up with choices for next year.” ▪️

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.