Debmar-Mercury, Gannett Form Programming Partnership

Gannett Broadcasting and Debmar-Mercury have formed a partnership to develop, produce, test and distribute first-run broadcast series for a variety of dayparts, said Dave Lougee (pictured), president of Gannett Broadcasting, and Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein, copresidents of Debmar-Mercury, on Monday.

The partnership gives Gannett Broadcasting the ability to create, test and perfect first-run syndicated television programming across all genres on many of its stations beginning in 2015.

"We liked Debmar-Mercury's feisty entrepreneurial spirit," says Lougee. “We will work together to design shows to take advantage of how television has changed and create a new genre of syndicated programming. With more than 40 stations across the country, we will have the ability to experiment, test and refine programs throughout the development process. Local broadcasters, like Gannett, have an opportunity to tap into the organic relationship between television viewing and social media.”

“With Gannett's strong roster of major-market affiliates and cutting-edge digital capabilities, we will be able to jointly create programming that is designed to meet both Gannett’s needs and those of network affiliates throughout the country. We are big believers in the on-air testing model, because it gives stations concrete information on which to base their buying decisions before making long-term commitments to a series.”

The development and distribution partnership will focus specifically on incorporating interactivity – the ability to engage the viewing audience with the show – into new shows. Gannett plans to leverage the robust digital presence, including mobile, of its stations to reach viewers wherever they are.

"Think about the game shows that have been successful in our industry over the last 30 years," says Lougee. "Imagine developing them today: you could and would have to have consumers playing along with the stars, and that’s a more engaging experience. That's what we want to do in a nutshell. We want to find a new generation of programmers and producers. It’s all about the content. This is not a technology play. This is a content play."

Another of the key aspects of the partnership is flexibility. Thus this deal is structured to allow the partners to develop and test the shows on Gannett stations throughout the year in various time periods and various lengths of time.

“Instead of just doing a pilot, we are producing six or ten episodes and airing them over several weeks,” says Marcus. “After that, you really know if you can produce that show. You know if there’s a point of view you can bring to the show every day. It’s by no means a sure thing that the show will work, but it’s much healthier than doing one episode and forcing the marketplace to commit to that show for two years.”

"We believe the days of putting a star on a couch and going out and getting people to buy that for two years are coming to an end if they haven't already. Generically, in terms of process, it doesn’t feel like the smartest way to program a television station," says Lougee. 

Lionsgate-owned Debmar-Mercury, along with Fox, innovated the testing model that is becoming more and more common in syndication. The syndicator has tested such shows as Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, which eventually went on to TBS and then into broadcast syndication, and The Wendy Williams Show, which is now wrapping up its fifth season. Both of those shows were first tested on the Fox owned TV stations, which now makes a policy of only picking up syndicated shows after they’ve been tested. So far, that’s also been the case with Warner Bros.’ TMZ,TMZ Live, TMZ Sports and Bethenny as well as its own Dish Nation

Many other shows have been tested that did not go forward, but gaining that information is one of the points of the process. Debmar-Mercury also still sells shows into syndication without first testing them. This fall the syndicator will launch nationwide Celebrity Name Game, starring Craig Ferguson.

While the partnership will not limit Debmar-Mercury or Gannett to only working with each other, it will give the syndicator a large platform to try out shows. Debmar-Mercury plans to hire a full-time person to work exclusively with Gannett on this partnership, said Marcus.

Gannett, which last year merged with Belo, is the country’s largest independent operator of major network affiliates in the top 25 TV markets. Excluding owner-operators, Gannett is the number-one NBC and CBS affiliate group, with stations covering nearly one-third of the country. 

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.