Kicking and Streaming, Sector Enters Brave New Age

Headed into 2014, with a year of rapid consolidation in the rearview mirror, the business of syndication and distribution is shifting. Large station groups are exercising more leverage and syndicators are seeking out new distribution partners, including TV station groups, cable operators and subscription video- on-demand (SVOD) platforms.

“The challenge with these first-run shows in the new business of syndication is to find other platforms that make sense so you don’t go broke,” says a station executive.

Rise of SVOD

SVOD providers—such as Netflix and Amazon— are becoming real players in the battle for off-net programming. While sitcoms, especially the most expensive ones, tend to go to cable networks first, SVOD players are starting to play in those arenas. And where SVOD services used to be willing to share windows with cable networks, exclusivity is becoming a factor again.

“There’s a tug-of-war between digital and basic cable,” says Chuck Larsen, president of October Moon Television, which represents producers in off-network distribution deals. “You now see more off-network shows going to cable or SVOD but not both. That trend is starting to develop.”

Larsen cites Warner Bros.’ sale of Person of Interest to Tribune’s WGN America as an example, noting that Tribune paid more for that show—as much as $1.5 million per episode, according to reports— to keep it off of digital platforms.

They’re Called ‘A-List’ for a Reason

Meanwhile, Warner Bros.’ The Big Bang Theory continues to prove that it brings value to Fox-owned and other TV stations as well as to TBS. The longrunning sitcom was down 15% year-to-year in the November sweeps, but it’s still leading the field, even with new competition and time slot disruption from Twentieth Television’s newcomer Modern Family.

“That show has maintained its No. 1 position at a time when the most anticipated new show, Modern Family, came on the scene,” says Bill Carroll, VP/ director of programming, Katz Television Group. “Modern Family has been successful but it hasn’t overtaken The Big Bang Theory. Normally, the marquee show for that particular year in syndication is the top show.”

Still, syndication observers are waiting to see how Modern Family does come February, when sitcoms tend to climb to new highs. And how Modern Family does in year one is less important than how it does over the next several years, because stations acquired that show for as long as an 11-year cycle.

Big Names Not Best Bets

Back in first-run, many predict there will be less focus on big names that command big dollars, because for the most part that has not been enough to guarantee success in the past few years. Famous names such as Katie Couric, Queen Latifah and Anderson Cooper all have failed to meet expectations. Bringing back past syndication successes—such as Ricki Lake and Arsenio Hall—also has been received without much viewer enthusiasm.

“What we need is something different that pushes the envelope,” says a station programming exec.

In that vein, syndicators are looking hard at interpreting what TV stations and audiences want to see.

Live, Local and Interactive

“There seems to be an interest in localizing these shows and making them live,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of creative affairs for CBS Television Distribution. “Stations also seem to be interested in the idea of some kind of interactivity, some participation from the viewer.”

Doing live TV in daytime is nothing new—Disney/ ABC’s Live with Kelly and Michael has been taped live since Regis Philbin first started doing the show locally in New York in 1982, and Warner Bros.’ Rosie O’Donnell was shot live. Right now, TV stations air NBCU’s Access Hollywood Live and Warner Bros.’ TMZ Live, although neither of those shows are national.

“Live TV adds an urgency, an anything-can-happen feeling to it. It gives you a feeling there’s a reason to watch,” says McLoughlin.

A quick look at the Twitter social rankings shows that programs that air live tend to attract the biggest social media followings. NBC’s live airing of The Sound of Music on Dec. 6 grabbed 18.6 million viewers, with 450,000 tweets that reached more than 5.2 million Twitter users. On any day of the week, live-to-tape shows, such as NBC’s The Voice, top the Twitter list.

Says McLoughlin, who shepherded Warner Bros.’ socially savvy Ellen before switching to CTD: “Social media is key.”

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.