Smaller Audiences Force New Ideas in Syndication

Wheel of Fortune
Disney paid some $1.6 million per week for five more years of game-show juggernauts ‘Wheel of Fortune’ (pictured) and ‘Jeopardy!’ on ABC-owned stations. (Image credit: Sony Pictures Television/CBS Media Ventures)

The instability of the overall syndication firmament is resulting in stability in other areas, such as locking shows and talent into longer-term renewals.

The practice is nothing new in syndication, with established hits like Oprah, Ellen and others routinely having scored long-term deals. But the new reality of relatively low ratings for all launches — major new talkers Debmar-Mercury’s Sherri and Warner Bros.’ Jennifer Hudson are both averaging between a 0.6 and 0.7 household rating, according to Nielsen, thus far — has made multiyear deals rare for newer shows and almost non­existent for rookies. 

In January, which used to be the month when the NATPE convention was held and thus when deals were closed and announcements made, syndicators announced several renewals and long-term deals, with several more pending.

The biggest of these, by far, was the five-year deal that the ABC Owned Stations gave to Sony Pictures Television’s long-running game juggernauts Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. With that renewal came a license fee that used to be more de rigueur but now is almost unheard of: Disney is paying upwards of $1.6 million per week to carry both shows across its owned station group, according to several industry sources. And that’s only for the ABC-owned stations that carry the show — that doesn’t include the fees stations across the rest of the country will pony up for the pair.

Also: ‘Family Feud’ Renewed for Three More Seasons

Wheel and Jeopardy! were able to command such numbers and such a long-term renewal for several reasons. First, Jeopardy! is frequently the most-watched entertainment series on television — including anything on primetime. Wheel, which is paired with Jeopardy! in access time periods on ABC-owned stations in top markets, is never far behind. In the week ended January 22, Jeopardy! scored a 5.9 live-plus-same-day household rating and 9.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen, followed by Wheel of Fortune at a 5.6 and 9.6 million viewers. And unlike competitor Debmar-Mercury-distributed Family Feud, which runs many times a day on both broadcast and cable, the two games turn in those ratings on the strength of their single runs.

Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! also were the beneficiaries of something else that used to be common in syndication but that now almost never happens: a bidding war.

Big Four In the Bidding

The station groups of all the Big Four networks initially bid for the two games, although news-heavy NBC reportedly dropped out early. ABC, CBS and Fox stayed in the mix with Fox asking for a six-year deal, rather than five, in order to cover three political cycles. Wheel and Jeopardy!’s older, well-heeled audiences are catnip to political ad buyers who come out in force every other year, another factor driving up their collective price tag.

In the end, ABC prevailed, with sources saying that the deal was so important to The Walt Disney Co. that the details traveled all the way up to newly returned CEO Bob Iger.

Wheel and Jeopardy! aren’t the only shows to have been renewed in the past few weeks. Debmar-Mercury has been quietly renewing Family Feud, starring Steve Harvey, in three-year deals, with half the country starting their new deals this fall and the other half the following fall. 

Feud has been renewed through 2025-26 in most of the major markets on Fox, CBS and Nexstar stations,” said Ira Bernstein, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “We’re getting to play market by market, which in this day and age [of group renewals] has become a huge advantage to us.”

Fox Television Stations picked up Sherri, Debmar-Mercury’s new talker starring Sherri Shepherd, for two more years, as did Cox Media Group, Nexstar Media Group, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tegna. Fox also renewed Warner Bros.’s Jennifer Hudson for another season. 

“Stability helps both you and the production entity,” Frank Cicha, executive VP, programming, Fox Television Stations, said. “The scary thing was always the multiple-year deal at the outset.” 

‘The Drew Barrymore Show'

Drew Barrymore was renewed with a new, two-half-hour format.  (Image credit: CBS Media Ventures)

Sherri had the advantage of putting an experienced host in Shepherd — who starred on ABC’s The View from 2007 to 2014 — into the chair of a popular host in Wendy Williams. Although Sherri just premiered in September, it has the feel of a more veteran show because Shepherd guest-hosted Wendy Wiliams many times in the 2021-22 TV season when Williams was unavailable for medical reasons. Sherri also retained much of Wendy Williams’s crew and personnel after that show was canceled.

“We want that show to continue and get broader,” Bernstein said about Sherri. “We think it’s a solid single to left field and we’d like to grow it 10%, 20%, 30% over the next few years. These things take a long time.” 

Similarly, Jennifer Hudson is produced largely by Ellen DeGeneres’s executive
producers and crew and on Ellen’s set, but Hudson herself is a new face in syndication. 

“There are four financial drivers in this business: cash, barter, controlling your costs or repurposing your product in other places,” David Decker, newly appointed president of content sales at Warner Bros. Discovery, said. “You also have to be really cost-conscious. We did a really good job with that. We were able to launch the show on the Ellen infrastructure and we didn’t have to build a set or a control room. Our startup costs weren’t what a new talk show usually is.” 

Decker and Warner Bros. are also happy to be in business with a talent like Hudson. “I’ve been on the road with her and she is the real deal; she’s a very special talent,” Decker said. “She’s an EGOT [Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony winner] who is genuine and who likes to listen to people.” 

Also renewed this Tuesday (January 31) was this year’s new game show Pictionary, starring Jerry O’Connell, which Fox distributes in a first-ever partnership with CBS Media Ventures after a summer test run in 2021. Fox renewed Fox First Run-produced You Bet Your Life with Jay Leno for season three and 25 Words or Less, starring and executive produced by Meredith Vieira, for season five. Back in September, Fox also gave two-year deals to TMZ and TMZ Live, both of which are now produced in-house after Fox acquired TMZ in September 2021.

Rounding out the rookie-class renewals, NBCUniversal is expected to pick up Karamo, starring Karamo Brown, for a second season. That means that everything that was introduced this year will see a season two.

Some Vets Return

Among the veterans, CBS signed Drew Barrymore, now in a half-hour format, up for another year and Hearst gave both weekly political show Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien and distributor Sony Pictures Television two more years. Matter of Fact, which is produced by Hearst, has been on the air for eight seasons.

“I am hopeful the rest of the country will follow suit with Hearst,” said Zack Hernandez, senior VP, general sales manager, Sony Pictures Television. “The show fills a need in the marketplace, which is a weekend news adjacency.” 

What all of these renewals mean is that there’s not much space for new product, but there are still some new shows circulating.

'Channel Surf with Craig Ferguson'

Craig Ferguson will return to TV next fall with clip show Channel Surf. (Image credit: Sony Pictures Television)

Sony Pictures Television in mid-January surprised the market by introducing a new half-hour clips show, Channel Surf with Craig Ferguson. Channel Surf will be produced in England by Sony-owned production studio Whisper North, helping to keep costs down. It’s being shopped for a cash license fee plus a 5.5 national/2.5 local barter split.

While some observers noted that it seems a bit late to bring a new show to market, especially considering that all of this year’s newcomers are being renewed, Hernandez said, “I think good shows find their way. My rule is to never assume and people will make room if it’s good enough.” 

Ferguson, who hosted CBS’s The Late, Late Show from 2005 to 2014, knows syndication, having starred in Debmar-Mercury’s Celebrity Name Game from 2014-16. He also shopped an access (pre-primetime) or late-night talk vehicle that never sold. The arrival of Channel Surf to the marketplace is also interesting because with the end of Dr. Oz and The Good Dish, whether Sony was going to continue to produce first-run series for syndication seemed in question, but Hernandez shot down that notion.

“I’ve never been part of a studio that is more aligned from domestic to international, distribution to production,” Hernandez said of Sony. “Channel Surf is the first of what I hope are many new first-run offerings in the coming years.”

Besides Channel Surf, other new offerings for fall 2023 include talk
show Michaela from PPI Releasing, starring former Good Day LA and HLN anchor Michaela Pereira; a court show starring Eboni K. Williams from Allen Media Group and off-GSN People Puzzler starring Leah Remini from Debmar-Mercury. 

Off-network, Carsey-Werner is expected to bring out ABC’s Roseanne spinoff The Conners, now in its fourth season on the network. 

With 2023 looking like a slow year in terms of new offerings, 2024 brings the prospect of more open time slots and thus more opportunity. ■

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). 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.