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Five Giants That Decide What We See

It’s simple math. For a new show to launch in syndication, advertisers demand that it be sold in the top three markets: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. But to get a syndicated product cleared in these markets requires the participation of one of five major station groups: NBC, ABC, Viacom, Fox and Tribune.

“The 'five families’ do control the landscape of syndication,” says John Nogawski, president of Paramount Domestic Television. “If they decide a show should return, it’s just one less place a new show can really get launched.”

Says John Bryan, executive vice president of sales for Buena Vista Television, “You used to have the backup of going to the independents in those big markets. That’s changed a lot now with Viacom and Fox owning those stations.”

Each of the station groups works with its own strategic goals. For example, the ABC-owned stations have not bought a new show from outside their own production company, Buena Vista Television, in years.

Fox Goes Its Own Way

This year is no different; Buena Vista has recently renewed The Tony Danza Show and secured some upgrades, locking up any extra slots the group may have had. Otherwise, with King World’s The Oprah Winfrey Show in daytime or early fringe and its Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in access, Buena Vista’s Live With Regis & Kelly in the morning, a plethora of network soaps and plenty of local newscasts, ABC stations tend to have very few syndication needs.

It is typically a different story with Fox-owned stations, because they have duopolies in many markets and only two hours of network-generated programming per day, resulting in plenty of time slots to fill. Still, that group also tends to keep its production needs in-house. While some of the stations’ programming—Sony’s Seinfeld, NBC Universal’s Fear Factor, Buena Vista’s Regis (in a few markets) and, debuting in 2008, King World’s Everybody Loves Raymond—comes from other studios, for the most part, News Corp. keeps it in the family.

For next year, News Corp.’s Twentieth Television, its syndication division, has three shows on the slate: A Current Affair is planned for a station-group launch in the spring, court strip Judge Alex looks like a national go for fall, and a talk show with financial whiz Suze Orman is also likely for fall.

“Fox, in an interesting way, doesn’t care whether the rest of the marketplace wants a show or not. They’ll launch it on their own,” says one syndication executive. “That’s how they differentiate themselves: They ignore the marketplace.”

For the past few years, Twentieth has been pioneering a system of testing its first-run shows by rolling them out on the Fox station group, which by itself covers 40% of the country. That incubator allows Twentieth to test and fix syndicated programming before offering it nationwide.

“It depends on the project, where it’s going to air and how it fits on our stations, so there are a number of considerations,” says Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television, “but we think testing shows makes sense for us in certain situations.”

Shows like Classmates, Live Like a Star, Design Invasion and Ambush Makeover all started as regional rollouts. Of those, only Ambush Makeover has made it into national syndication, where it averages around a 1.1 national household rating.

The Viacom station group, which includes CBS and UPN stations, also has a lot of time to fill. Like Fox, UPN programs only two hours of prime time per night; unlike Fox, the network takes weekends off. While the CBS stations are crowded with network fare and local news, the duopoly stations have plenty of space.

Thus, Viacom’s UPN stations carry a wide range of syndicated programming, including Warner Bros.’ Celebrity Justice, Judge Greg Mathis and People’s Court; Paramount’s Girlfriends, Becker, Spin City and Frasier; Buena Vista’s Home Improvement; Carsey-Werner’s That ’70s Show; and Sony’s Life & Style and Pat Croce: Moving In.

Trib a Big Buyer

Tribune also has many available time slots, but the group’s major stations are WB affiliates. That gives them two hours a night of prime time, local news on many stations (including morning shows and late- fringe newscasts), and robust off-net fare, including Warner Bros.’ Friends and Will & Grace and King World’s Everybody Loves Raymond. In 2005, the group will show HBO’s Sex and the City in late night.

In first run, the Tribune stations rely heavily on NBC Universal’s Maury and The Jerry Springer Show, which they double-run in many markets. They also run NBC Universal’s Home Delivery, which won’t be back next year due to high production costs. Recently, the Tribune stations and Tribune Entertainment together agreed that a planned remake of Real People, starring The Other Half’s Mario Lopez, was ultimately too expensive to produce.

Finally, NBC also tries to funnel its own fare to its stations, but it is open to other studios. The station group has been happy with the performance of Warner Bros.’ The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It doesn’t own the show but shares half of any profits with the syndicator. However, NBC Universal let go of King World’s Dr. Phil and Paramount’s Judge Judy because they were too pricey.

Starting Over, NBC Universal’s little show that could, isn’t knocking the national ratings out of the park, but NBC and station groups such as Hearst-Argyle are pleased with the reality show’s demographics; it is expected to be renewed for a third year.

Low national ratings and high-profile clearances are making The Jane Pauley Show’s future less certain, although stations do have two-year contracts to run it. Last month, NBC Universal announced it is bringing Martha Stewart back to syndicated television through a deal with the jailed domestic diva and reality maven Mark Burnett.

Other than Martha, Warner Bros.’ The Tyra Banks Show, Sony’s The Robin Quivers Show and Twentieth’s three offerings, there is an unusually low number of new first-run strips coming to NATPE this year. This is because stations are renewing successful syndicated for years into the future, locking up those slots. Stations also double-run many shows, including Maury and Jerry Springer. Many of the court shows, such as genre leader Judge Judy and Warner Bros.’ People’s Court, also get double runs.

Some Stations Build Their Own

And some station groups that aren’t quite the size of the five giants are upping their hours of local news, figuring it is better for their stations to do more local programming than to suffer with subpar syndicated product.

From the syndicators’ side, there are also fewer reasons to produce first-run shows. Because of entrenched hits and the proliferation of cable, it is nearly impossible for a new show to do better than a 1.2 national household rating between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Such low ratings aren’t easy to sell.

“I don’t think it’s the need, I think it’s the math,” says Emerson Coleman, vice president of programming for Hearst-Argyle Television. “The cost of producing shows for daytime that have a good chance for a healthy return is too high. It’s really a challenge for the program providers and for the stations. They have to be concerned about where new product is coming from.”

Dick Askin, president and CEO of Tribune Entertainment, says, “We still think that first-run production and distribution is a good business, but you really have to pick your moments. One of the things that people lose sight of is that this is a business that is expected to generate profit.

“In prior years,” he adds, “if you launched a show, you were considered to have had a successful year. The reality is, given the economics of the marketplace, you have to be smarter in terms of what you are going to do and, more importantly, what you are not going to do.”

With studios’ interest in producing first-run shows for daytime waning, stations are looking for alternatives. One of those is turning back toward locally produced programming, at least gradually.

“I don’t think it’s imminent,” Coleman says. “I don’t think it’s something we’re going to see next season or the following season, but I think you are going to see some local stations become inventive and create their own product. There is some value for local stations in doing their own thing. I think doing local programming has to be reviewed and examined carefully and closely.”

In fall 2004, Gannett’s WUSA Denver launched a weekday talk show at 10 a.m. The show has a staff of only six, which keeps expenses down, according to station President and General Manager Roger Ogden says. The show also offers advertiser-supported segments to help defray costs.

“We’ve gotten very little negative feedback on this format,” Ogden says. “Not every segment is advertiser-supported, but if they were it would be fine with us.”

Gannett also airs a similar show in Phoenix at 11 a.m.

“The industry is trending back to localism,” Ogden says. “Doing local shows like this under the old format, relying solely on advertising that came during the breaks, would be too difficult. This way, you can create a greater revenue stream and still put on a product that people care about seeing. Then you can overcome the hurdle that has always been in the way of producing more local programming.”