The phrase off-network syndication conjures up big broadcast sitcoms with laugh tracks echoing across independent stations and cable networks.
But the flourishing of original programming on cable has created a corner of the off-network syndication world that operates from a different starting point and with a different model: cableto- cable syndication.
Networks were originally resistant to cable-to-cable deals, because cable programming services are more sharply branded than broadcasters and their series are more closely identified with the original network, executives said.
That resistance has been overcome, though, as cable-to-cable syndication has demonstrated “some significant value there” and has emerged as “the next natural market for these shows,” Steve MacDonald, executive vice president and general sales manager, cable sales, at Twentieth Television said. Twentieth sold the FX show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Comedy Central.
Certainly, basic-cable networks are still active syndication buyers. Last week, for example, WGN America and CBS struck a cable-exclusive deal for the broadcast network’s drama Elementary, after the Tribune-owned network had bought CBS’s Person of Interest.
The per-network price was not disclosed, but Broadcasting & Cable reported that when later sales to broadcast and over-the-top outlets are factored in, Elementary should reap more than $3 million per episode — a record amount for a drama.
In a world of multiple windows and endless platforms, buyers generally are less concerned about exclusivity then about solid programming that fits their brand. And sellers say having a back end to any deal boosts a network’s bottom line but also is attractive to producers when compared with over-the-top outlets like Netflix or Amazon Instant Video.
“It has been a small but steady sliver of the business for the last couple of years,” David Bernath, Comedy Central executive vice president of programming and multiplatform strategy, said.
Cable hits start out with a fraction the audience of broadcast hits, so they’re less likely to draw huge audiences in syndication, typically filling the role of a “utility player,” Bernath said.
Cable series cost less than broadcast hits, which is a plus. But the market can be limited because “a cable network’s brand identity is defined by its original shows, so they are less likely to sell those shows [to another cable outlet] than a broadcast network would be,” per Bernath.
“There’s still a need to cultivate a back end for shows,” ION Media CEO Brandon Burgess said. “We’re another dollar source. Basic cable doesn’t have to be the first window, but cable-to-cable can help networks maximize their dollars.”
ION has bought mainstream cable dramas Burn Notice, which airs on USA Network, and Leverage, which airs on TNT.
Consumers also can be characterized by windows, Burgess said. Some viewers want to watch something when it’s brand new, while others want to make sure something is good before bingewatching. Others are content to discover and catch up with a series in syndication further down the road.
CBS-owned Showtime, a premium-network producer of popular original shows, remains in the cable-to-cable business when it makes sense. “It’s a great marketplace — there are a lot of buyers and a lot of options,” Scott Koondel, senior vice president and chief corporate content licensing officer for Showtime parent CBS, said. “We don’t have a cookie-cutter formula; we look at the marketplace for each show. There are different windows, and we want to get maximum exposure and dollars for a show.”
With Dexter (pictured), Showtime determined that it could structure deals to maximize numerous platforms. The series about a forensics expert who happens to be a serial killer was sold to Netflix, for a reported $1.8 million per episode, and also to basic-cable network NUVOtv, which gained an exclusive cable window for nine months, after which Dexter might also appear on another basic-cable network. (The show remains available on the Showtime Anytime app.)
WIN-WIN ON ‘DEXTER’
NUVOtv programming head Bill Hilary said “a tough negotiation produced a “sophisticated deal” that gave NUVOtv the series it wanted and afforded Showtime the needed flexibility in terms of windows.
Hilary said he was less concerned about price and exclusivity then about making a pay cable series work on basic.
“I don’t know if I’d have bought it if I had to edit it down to an hour and destroy the story arc,” he said. “It was a time for us to think radically.”
NUVOtv runs Dexter episodes back to back over two and a half hours, enabling the channel to maintain the narrative while making sex, language and violence adjustments.
“It has tripled our primetime ratings,” Hilary said.
HBO’s Strategic Retreat
Cable-to-cable syndication really got started, not surprisingly, with HBO, which reaped big bucks from sales of high-profile shows like Sex and the City, The Sopranos and Entourage.
In the process, HBO both learned and taught lessons about transitioning premium-network shows. All three series needed to have language, sexual content and violent scenes hacked out, and had to be trimmed for time to accommodate those pesky basiccable commercials.
“The shows required such altering that they lost their edge and their context,” Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Group, noted.
That hurt basic-cable presentations of The Sopranos and Entourage, and sales of shows such as The Wire provided less money and less exposure for the HBO brand.
HBO’s approach now is, instead of selling, say, Game of Thrones to Syfy, it monetizes shows through platforms like iTunes and Google Play, and then preserves them for their own subscribers via video-on-demand and TV Everywhere apps. “A few years ago, we decided to pull back on syndicating our original programming because we felt it bett er served the business as an exclusive offering on HBO Go,” Charles Schreger, president of program sales at HBO, told Multichannel News.
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Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.