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The Battle to 'Survive' at the Top

John Nogawski needs a hit. Well, so does the entire first-run syndication world. It’s not a unique problem for Nogawski, the president of CBS Television Distribution: The last time a show broke out in first-run was Sony’s Dr. Oz back in 2009. Oz averaged a 2.3 live plus same day national rating in its first week on the air and immediately became the third highest-ranked talk show in syndication, behind giants Oprah and Dr. Phil.

Prior to that, the best showing came from CTD’s Rachael Ray, which launched in 2006 to a similar rating. But compare what’s being called a hit now to what used to be a hit: In 2002, CTD’s Dr. Phil premiered at a 4.4, a number that no rookie first-run show has touched in a decade. And all three of those shows had one key thing in common—they were all spinoffs of Oprah, which ended its 25-year run in May 2011, at once eliminating both syndication’s highest-rated talk show and its most fertile development platform.

Heading into fall, all eyes are on CTD, and so is the pressure. Right now, the company dominates first-run syndication with the top talk show, Dr. Phil, which is produced by Dr. Phil McGraw’s company, Peteski Productions; the top two entertainment magazines, Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition; and the top two court shows, Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown. CTD also distributes the top two game shows, the Sony-produced Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! Those shows are all renewed for two to three years in the future, guaranteeing CTD’s revenue, at least in the short-term.

But what happens when Judge Judy Sheindlin, who turns 70 in October (the same month she will be inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame), retires? Wheel and Jeopardy!, like Debmar-Mercury’s Family Feud and CBS’ Price Is Right, could arguably go on without their respective current hosts, Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek, but no such changes appear to be on the horizon. Dr. Phil is syndication’s top talker, but CTD was forced to slash the show’s license fees in 2009 in order to keep it on the air through 2014. Phil’s ratings have rebounded since then, but it was touch-and-go for a while.

Finally, even leaders such as Entertainment Tonight are losing ratings every year, and that’s true across most of syndication. Drops in ratings mean loss of advertising revenue, and that’s forcing Nogawski to slash budgets on shows to make up for revenue shortfalls and to keep margins in line with Wall Street’s expectations for the longsuccessful division.

One can see that CBS needs some new blood, but so too does everyone in daytime. Industry insiders focusing on the affable Nogawski’s need to develop something new may seem harsh, but first place in anything comes with a big target on your back. And what makes the problem more pressing for Nogawski is his lineup is very top-heavy. It’s like having a basketball team composed of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard and absolutely no young players coming up. Without a little recruiting (which Nogawski is attempting with Jeff Probst this year and Arsenio Hall in 2013), in a few years there will be problems.

And CTD has to live up to the reputation of a giant in the syndication business: itself.

“It’s about trying to generate a revenue picture that can hold up to the past,” says one former programmer. “It’s the curse of being the big machine. It’s nothing against [Nogawski], it’s just the business. The problem for him internally is that the performance of his shows is being compared to numbers that don’t exist anymore.”

Nogawski knows this, too: “We’re a victim of our own success,” he says. “We have so many big shows that we are at the top of that food chain.”

Betting on a 'Survivor'

With Oprah far behind him now, Nogawski is lining up his new shots. This fall, he’ll premiere a talk show starring Survivor host Jeff Probst, with the NBC owned stations as the launch group. Getting the show on the air at all was a coup—one that some credit Nogawski for personally.

“The sale of Jeff Probst has everything to do with John Nogawski’s skill as a salesman and less to do with the quality of the pilot,” says one syndication producer.

Last November, when syndicators all of a sudden found themselves playing musical chairs for time slots, Nogawski was among the lucky distributors left with a spot, along with Twentieth’s Ricki Lake, Warner Bros.’ Anderson, Disney-ABC’s Katie and NBCU’s Steve Harvey. Shut out, Warner Bros. turned Bethenny into a test for this summer—a move that’s likely to turn out well for Warners—and NBCU was forced to cobble together a launch lineup for its new con" ict talker, Trisha Goddard.

One of the keys to Probst—and to any show Nogawski launches, whether it’s The Insider or Swift Justice—is that they don’t lose money, he says. “I always make sure that I have enough of a margin built in from the revenue side versus the cost side,” he says. “After seeing my lineup, which gets established by Joe DiSalvo, my head of sales, and I see that the time period we’ve got typically does a 1 [rating], for example, I tell Aaron [Meyerson, head of programming] that ‘we have to develop a budget for this that can support a 1 rating.’ Do I want to do a 1? No, I want to do a much bigger number. But I have to base the business on a number that I can support.”

Industry estimates are that CTD will produce Probst for approximately $24 million, with about $6 million added for promotion. CTD also got added juice by promoting the new show during NBC’s Summer Olympics coverage.

Compare that $30 million to the estimated $80 million that Disney-ABC is expected to spend to get Katie Couric’s show on the air. It was those economics that forced Nogawski to pass on Couric’s daytime talker, even though that show could be the hit he needs: “I think [Disney- ABC] cut a bad deal,” he says. “They did get very large license fees, but the majority of those license fees are attributed to ABC’s owned-and-operated stations. [Katie] is going to have to do a very large number for them to make money.”

Nogawski already has started looking ahead to 2013, when he will partner with Tribune Broadcasting to bring Arsenio Hall back to late night.

“What John did with us on Arsenio was flawlessly executed,” says Sean Compton, president of Tribune Broadcasting. “Like us, he’s taking a risk, but he’s the guy who pulled off getting that show cleared and getting it to a place where everyone is comfortable with it.”

“I think Arsenio’s reputation is big enough and late night is lucrative enough that stations were willing to pay a license fee,” says a former syndication executive. “CTD will be getting some license fees for the show, and that’s rare these days.”

CTD is also developing a new talk show for 2013 that would star foodies Bobby Flay and Giada de Laurentiis.

Not an Easy Road

Finding a hit in television is hard enough these days, but first-run syndication may be the toughest game in town.

“Syndication is worse than network television, worse than feature films. The syndication television business is the 98% failure business,” says a former syndication programming exec. “When you look at all the different genres and shows that are tried every year and how many of them come back for a second year, it’s a very small percentage.”

Moreover, all of these shows attract audiences that aged out of TV stations’ key demographic of adults 25-54 long ago, causing some TV stations—such as E.W. Scripps, which has dropped Wheel and Jeopardy!—to start seeking younger, cheaper (and riskier) programs.

Now Nogawski’s mission is not just to shore up the shows he has, keeping them on the air for as long as possible for as much cash as possible, but to find the next big thing. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.

“I’m a fan of his,” says the former programming exec. “He’s one of these guys who keeps his head down. He hires good people and is doing his best to keep the business going. He’s been fortunate in that he’s had some nice hits to keep him alive, and off-net always helps. But there’s no question about the fact that launching new business in first-run is a difficult business, and definitely a struggle.”

Nogawski has not personally developed and launched any of CTD’s big shows, a criticism that is frequently levied against him. While Paramount produces Dr. Phil, that show was developed and spun out of Oprah. Rachael Ray also was an Oprah spinoff. And even though CBS Paramount Domestic Television merged with King World in 2006, Roger King handled all things Oprah until his death from a stroke in 2007.

Other shows, such as Entertainment Tonight and Judge Judy, already were stars in the Paramount firmament when Nogawski took over. Since Nogawski became president of CTD in 2008, the division has launched lots of singles—such as the late-night dating show Excused, renewed for a second season, and the now-cancelled Swift Justice—but no doubles, and certainly nothing that could be called a home run. ET spinoff The Insider was developed on Nogawski’s watch, and it’s remained on the air for eight years, but its ratings could use a boost.

Syndication insiders also still say that losing Oprah and the chance to distribute Dr. Oz caused CTD to take a revenue hit.

“That was a big deal because having Oprah was a big stick to carry that gave them leverage in the market,” says one insider. “Having Oprah still looked good on the books. It was a guaranteed revenue stream.”

Nogawski dismisses that notion though.

“Our deal with Oprah was less and less profitable as the years went on,” says Nogawski. “Financially, it wasn’t as big of an impact on us as it would have been in prior years when the show was doing bigger numbers. It was a time when she didn’t want to do the show anymore, and her numbers were showing it. Would I have liked to have Oz? Sure, it’s a quality TV show. But I don’t think Harpo is coming out with any more TV shows. The launch pad was her.”

Still a Major Profit Center

Nogawski—and CBS overall—stay in the increasingly tough first-run business because “it’s a huge profit maker,” says Nogawski. “In off-net, all of the money goes back to the studio. The profit from this division is all from first-run. We represent a very large part of the profit that comes through CBS Corp.”

According to CBS’ most recent earnings report, released on Aug. 2, the company earned $1.83 billion in licensing and distribution fees in the first six months of 2012, up 13% from the $1.62 billion earned in the same period in 2011. Advertising, some of which comes from first-run syndication, makes up the largest segment of CBS’ revenue, with the company declaring $4.54 billion in ad revenue in the first half of 2012, down slightly from last year. CBS’ total revenue for the first six months of this year was just over $7 billion, with free cash flow of $1.17 billion.

How that revenue is divided between first-run and off-net is hard to determine, because CBS doesn’t break it out. As a point of reference, analyst David Bank of RBC estimates that off-net sales of NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife will throw off $300 million in 2013, and Hawaii Five-O (which is already sold to TNT) and Blue Bloods will generate another $275 million starting in 2014. That’s in addition to other digital licensing deals that Scott Koondel, CTD president of distribution and CBS Corp. senior VP of corporate licensing, oversees for the company, such as the estimated $1 billion overall deal that CBS and Warner Bros. signed with Netflix last October.

While some say Nogawski should try to shore up his leadership position by keeping off-net sales more firmly under his direction, he expresses confidence in his lieutenants.

“I let Joe do the station sales and I let Scott do the digital and cable sales,” says Nogawski. “I don’t get in the way of their negotiations. We have strategy conversations as to what we are selling and when we are selling it, but those are more 30,000-foot conversations….I wear a lot of hats here. I can’t get too bogged down on any one thing.”

And now, Nogawski needs to find that next hit to ensure his entire division won’t one day get bogged down either.

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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.