Crime Keeps Paying Off in Syndication

Why This Matters: The abundance of true-crime programs on TV means that new versions can be served to the challenged syndication marketplace very efficiently.

After several years of slow starts, it finally looks like true crime is here to stay in syndication, with both of this year’s new entries — Sony Pictures Television’s off-A&E Live PD: Police Patrol and off-Investigation Discoery’s True Crime Files — set to return next season.

Those two off-cable shows join NBCUniversal’s Dateline, which is now in season two and headed into season three with renewals in 85% of the country. All three shows are off-network versions of broadcast or cable originals. Taking them into syndication creates new ways to monetize them, making them extra efficient.

To customize Dateline for syndication, NBCU’s Peacock Productions re-edits the show, adding new wraps with hosts Craig Melvin and Natalie Morales and updating facts.

In December 2018, Dateline was up 17% in households compared to the prior year. In the week ended Feb. 10, it averaged a steady 1.4 for its Monday-Friday run in both broadcast syndication and on NBC-owned cable networks MSNBC, Oxygen and USA Network. It also airs in a two-hour block on Wednesday nights on Fox-owned MyNetworkTV. On the weekends, Dateline is syndication’s highestrated weekend show at a 3.4 in households.

Built-In Audience Familiarity

Meanwhile, the mothership, executive produced by David Corvo and Liz Cole, is in its 27th season on NBC on Fridays at 10 p.m. That longevity means audiences know what they are getting when they come to Dateline in syndication.

Dateline’s success is in its timeless stories,” Sean O’Boyle, executive VP and general sales manager at NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution, said. “It’s a real-life Law & Order. These great compelling crime mysteries are evergreen.”

Dateline has worked so well that NBC is now exploring its vast library, considering what else could work on other platforms.

“We’re working on some new shows in the syndication and licensing markets,” said Andy Cashman, the Peacock Productions executive producer who oversees Dateline’s production for syndication. “There are other NBC News library properties that we think would similarly resonate with an audience that we would love to see on more platforms. We are working on doing that now.”

While NBCU’s Chicago PD is fictional, it also seems to satisfy daytime viewers’ lust for crime. After debuting this season, it will return next year for year two of a two-year deal. Chicago PD, the first of Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise series to come to NBC primetime and then to syndication, airs as a Monday-Friday strip and off-net series on Tuesday nights on MyNetworkTV. Its weekday run is averaging a 1.0 in households, and it is turning in a 1.6 on the weekends.

While procedurals were once common in broadcast syndication — and much more so on cable — scripted series haven’t aired as syndicated strips for years. That might be changing with both Wolf’s Chicago Fire and Chicago Med coming down the pike.

“All of Dick’s shows are doing well and we’re looking at options for all of them,” O’Boyle said.

ID Helped Make the Genre

Crime caught syndication’s attention a while ago, when Investigation Discovery started burning up the cable charts among women 25-54. Syndicators realized that ID’s audience had quite a bit in common with the daytime TV audience, and a new genre was born.

ID realized that it had a treasure trove of episodes on its hands and brought on former syndication executives Barry Wallach and Joe diSalvo to distribute an all-barter package of its shows, called True Crime Files, in broadcast syndication. The block is averaging a 0.3 in households and is returning for next season with 195 new episodes. Stations covering about 86% of the country have signed up for season two, Wallach confirmed.

A much-newer entry to the overall genre is Live PD: Police Patrol, recut from episodes of A&E’s Live PD that debuted in October 2016. In just over two years, Live PD has created a strong, recognizable brand. Viewers have flocked to it with A&E ultimately expanding it to three hours on Friday and Saturday nights, creating plenty of material to be edited into half-hour blocks and syndicated. (For more on Live PD producer Big Fish Entertainment, see Cover Story.)

Live PD: Police Patrol was the perfect storm,” Flory Bramnick, SPT executive VP of distribution and ad sales, said. “It has all kinds of buzz. The timing was perfect for us to take it into syndication.”

Live PD plays like a sort of Cops for the social-media age and, in fact, many stations pair double-runs of Live PD: Police Patrol with Cops for a one-two true-crime punch.

“Part of our challenge was we like to go out in syndication with 175 episodes,” Bramnick said. “We had to wait for them to produce enough episodes so we could cut them up and make half-hours.”

When Live PD: Police Patrol, which also airs in blocks on A&E, returns for season two in September, it will have many new episodes in the mix.

In the meantime, Bramnick said, the show is doing well enough to catch new stations’ attention. It’s currently cleared in 86% of the U.S., and that number is expected to be higher by this fall.

In the week ended Feb. 10, Live PD: Police Patrol, which SPT offers on an all-barter basis, held steady at a 1.1 live-plus-same-day household rating for the sixth straight week, according to Nielsen, up 10% from its 1.0 fall debut.

Said Cashman: “When I was a producer sitting on a chair interviewing victims’ families, the emotion that those people told their stories with is powerful. These shows resonate because audiences tend to see that emotion in themselves.”

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.