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Syndicators Shift Focus to 2021

Drew Barrymore
The pandemic has made for a tougher-than-normal launch for talker ‘Drew Barrymore.’ (Image credit: CBS Television Distribuition)

For syndicators, 2021 will be something of a do-over. The shows had to go on even with the pandemic raging, so the vets returned to their sets and CBS Television Distribution’s rookie talker, Drew Barrymore, launched in its roomy Manhattan studio without a live audience. What all of the shows have been met with is a challenging production process, no energy from in-house viewers and depressed daytime ratings. 

Viewers are glued to the news, with all of the cable news channels up significantly year-to-year. CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC are up 44%, 21% and 14% in viewers, respectively, according to Nielsen. Combined, the three news channels have more viewers than the next 11 cable channels. In the third quarter, Fox News was TV’s most-watched network on either broadcast or cable for the first time in its history. 

Pre-emptions for news and sports have remained constant this fall. Huge news events, such as the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Donald Trump’s contraction of the coronavirus and the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, have kept viewers consuming news like never before. 

Sports also returned, forcing networks and stations to scramble to make room for the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals, the NBA playoffs, MLB’s shortened season and the NFL, not to mention golf’s U.S. Open and tennis’ French Open.

Politics, besides pulling away viewers, also is crowding out promo time. Many stations are stuffing their inventory full of as many political ads as possible, leaving little room for promotion of new shows. 

For Drew Barrymore, all of that has made for a much tougher-than-normal launch. In the week ended Oct. 11, the show averaged a 0.6 live-plus-same-day national household rating, per Nielsen. That’s somewhat soft but not that far from what sophomore talkers Kelly Clarkson and Tamron Hall, tied at a 0.8 in that same week, are doing. Drew was sold in two-year deals and is expected to return for season two.

Drew will join Tamron Hall, which the ABC stations have renewed for a third season, and Kelly Clarkson, which has not been officially renewed but is expected to be. NBCUniversal is clear that it’s grooming Clarkson for Ellen DeGeneres’ time slot, which is at 3 p.m. on most NBC-owned stations, no matter when that show comes to an end.

‘Ellen’ Fate in Question

When that might be is an open question, considering how much bad press Ellen received over the summer and how depressed its ratings are. Season to date in households, Ellen is down 42% compared to last year, more than any other talk show. Ellen DeGeneres also is taking Fridays off, with a guest host filling in, and the show sees even bigger ratings dips on those days.

Things are also changing at the company that produces Ellen, with WarnerMedia laying off thousands of employees — including Rick Meril, executive VP, general sales manager, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, and Donna Redier Linsk, head of Warner Bros.’ first-run production arm, Telepictures, who left the company in August. WarnerMedia also has closed its sales offices everywhere except Los Angeles, leaving only two syndication sales representatives on staff.

That said, Mike Darnell, president of unscripted and alternative television, remains at the company with oversight of first-run development, and WarnerMedia has said it is still in development on new first-run shows. The company also intends to continue supporting the first-run shows it currently has on the air, including Ellen, Extra and TMZ. But with WarnerMedia’s emphasis on HBO Max and streaming,
many are questioning how committed WarnerMedia is to first-run syndication.

Competitors said they don’t want to see Warner Bros., which has been a major force in syndication, exit the business. “I want Warner Bros. to be in the business and I want them to do first-run syndication,” Debmar-Mercury co-president Mort Marcus said. “[More competition] makes everything more relevant and it keeps the business vibrant. I don’t believe in a world where we’re the only supplier.” 

‘Cannon’ Aims for ’21

With all that as background, syndicators are prepping for 2021 and beyond. Debmar-Mercury expects to bring Nick Cannon to market after having been forced to put the show on hold due both to the pandemic and to anti-Semitic comments Cannon made on his podcast. Now efforts are underway to remount the production for next fall.

CTD also is looking at shopping a daytime talker starring Niecy Nash of Claws and Reno 911!, sources confirmed. The show would be produced in partnership by Ben Winston, James Corden’s Fulwell73 and CTD, with CTD distributing.

Nick Cannon

Debmar-Mercury is moving forward with plans for Nick Cannon next fall. (Image credit: Michael Becker/Fox)

Other syndicators are bringing to syndication already-produced programs. NBCUniversal will offer stations for fall 2021 a strip version of its primetime staple, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Sean O’Boyle, executive VP, general sales manager, NBCUniversal, said. NBCU did this successfully with repackaged episodes of Dateline and with scripted procedural Chicago PD, which is now out of syndication and airing on Fox-owned MyNet.

Also on deck for next year is Fox’s reboot of You Bet Your Life, hosted by Jay Leno. That show is expected to be slotted in access time periods on Fox-owned stations in major markets.

“Stations need product to drive people to local news and other dayparts, so you can’t give up on syndication,” said one syndication executive. “Now, more than ever, people should be leaning into it. I think there’s a lot of opportunity going forward but stations need to participate in that.”