In ’16, Not Many Station Slots Available for Programmers

Syndication’s selling season basically started and stopped in October when NBCUniversal sold variety strip Harry, starring Harry Connick Jr., to the Fox-owned stations.

That deal meant multiple things for 2016, but mostly the closing off of available time slots for national launches.

The NBC-owned stations, instead of acquiring the show developed for them by their sister company, are expected to launch local news at 4 p.m. by this fall. As a result, Warner Bros.’ Ellen will be pushed to 3 p.m. in NBC-owned markets, and notably New York, and NBCU’s own Steve Harvey will move back to 2 p.m. NBCU’s Meredith Vieira, which now airs at 2 p.m. in NBC markets, is expected to wrap its run after production ends this May.

All of which means the NBC-owned stations aren’t in the market for a new show.

Another potential slot could be on ABC-owned stations and other station groups, where this year’s new show, FABLife, is struggling. That said, FABLife was sold in two-year deals and ABC hasn’t indicated plans to end the program. Should ABC decide to do that, in the past it has managed with double-runs of its own Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and CBS Television Distribution’s Jeopardy! so it wouldn’t necessarily be looking to acquire a new show.

Warner Bros. had been hoping to sell Ice & Coco after a successful summer test run, but after Fox bought Harry, Warner Bros. retested the show on four Tribune-owned stations. Ratings for that test were low and Warner Bros. doesn’t plan to continue to attempt to sell it, sources say.

Test Pattern

However, Warner Bros. is testing new comedy-game hybrid, South of Wilshire, on Fox stations starting Jan. 4. Another test, The Security Brief With Paul Viollis, also is airing on Sinclair, Tegna and Scripps stations.

The industry has been talking tests for years—and companies such as Fox, Debmar-Mercury, Warner Bros., Tegna, Sinclair, Tribune and more—have increasingly been testing new shows before officially picking them up. With fewer time periods available but a constant need for fresh programming, tests may become increasingly common in 2016.

Tegna is going forward with its new talk show, T.D. Jakes, which it tested in four markets over the summer. Tegna will air the program across 29 stations this fall, with the hope of adding markets as it goes.

“Tegna isn’t getting rid of an expensive show, they are adding an expensive show,” says one studio executive. “When you produce a show for yourself and double-down on it, you can experience how financially catastrophic the effects can be. That’s a huge gamble.”

It used to be a requirement that shows secure clearances in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago before they could launch, but that model is becoming more flexible, with some station groups launching shows in their own markets and hoping they catch on, or just letting them air in those markets with no plans of expansion.

Some of those are holding their own, such as Warner Bros.’ TMZ Live in Fox markets or NBCU’s Access Hollywood Live in NBC markets, but for the most part it’s hard to make those shows work over the long run.

Station groups have launched a fair amount of shows that they’ve produced themselves, but most haven’t worked.

Station groups have tried to work together in partnership but often find that it’s difficult, with each group serving its own competitive interest and not wanting to compromise with partners that are also rivals. Still, Fox and Media General are partnering on Hollywood Today Live, so that continues to be an alternative, if challenging, business model.

No matter how you look at it, 2016 looks like it will be a slow year for broadcast syndication.

Says Mort Marcus, copresident of Debmar-Mercury, “I think there are more opportunities in 2017, especially in access, because so many shows are ending and some sitcoms will be falling away.”

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.