Making Shows With Their Own Hands

With great size comes great power. That’s why today’s new large station groups—including Sinclair, Tribune, Gannett, Raycom, Scripps and Meredith—are taking it upon themselves to develop and distribute programming, with the idea that ownership leads to control.

Many shows already have emerged from variations of this new model: America Now, Arsenio Hall, Bill Cunningham, Let’s Ask America, The Better Show, RightThisMinute, Celebrity Name Game, The Now, The List, Flip My Food and Fix It & Finish It. Station groups and studios—such as Tribune and CBS Television Distribution and Gannett and Debmar-Mercury—are forging partnerships specifically to develop new programs.

So far, no station-produced show has emerged as anything more than a modest performer—and several in the above list have come and gone—but station groups are satisfied with a mix of singles, doubles and home runs on their programming line-ups to keep their budgets balanced.

“These station groups want to have more influence over their content and they want to develop it themselves. That doesn’t eliminate or mitigate what the syndicators are doing, it’s just another way in,” says Paul Buccieri, chairman, ITV Studios U.S. Group and Global Entertainment. “I think that this is now part of the landscape. I think there will always be this dual approach, but in the short-term, the bigger swings will come from the studios.”

And while studios aren’t happy to see fewer time periods in the market, they’ve shown that they are willing to work with these new models, whether that’s testing shows on station groups before launching them—à la Warner Bros.’ The Real, which premieres nationally Sept. 15—or creating partnerships with station groups.

“When it comes to Warner Bros., we are completely flexible in how we approach the market, whether it’s a test, a slow roll-out or a high-profile show,” says Ken Werner, president, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. “We’ve always looked to the market to determine how to roll out a new show, while also remaining very aware of the cost benefit and risks associated with any product.”

Playing the Odds

While the appeal of the TV business is much like that of Vegas—you never know where the next big win is coming from—the odds in TV are much worse. That’s why station groups will always want the big TV studios to stay in the game. The studios, with adjoining TV and movie production businesses, are much better able to mount large-scale $25 million to $40 million productions—such as Warner Bros.’ Ellen or NBCU’s Steve Harvey—and launch them nationally. No one wants to suffer a failure, but studios are far more able to absorb those losses than station groups are.

The end goal is always a hit, but station groups are likely to take a slower, less-expensive path to that desired destination.

“The hardest part for station groups to understand is the math,” says one station group executive. “How much do these things cost? How many swings at the ball does it take to get a hit, and how many of those swings can you afford? In success, almost anything makes sense. It’s the failures that are expensive. So, how many failures can you stomach before you get a hit that pays for all the swings?”

‘No One-Size-Fits-All Model’

These homegrown and regionally developed shows are coming together in many different ways. There’s no designated business model—every show offers unique opportunities on various platforms with varied partners, whether those are other station groups, established studios or independent producers.

“I don’t think you can adhere to a onesize- fits-all model,” says Sean Compton, Tribune Broadcasting’s president of strategic programming and acquisitions.

Tribune’s (and Sinclair’s) big bet for fall is Celebrity Name Game, for which Tribune owns part of the back-end. If the show is a hit, Tribune will have more say over whether the show stays on its stations or goes to a higher bidder when it comes time for renewals.

“One of the theoretical benefits of consolidation is that these new, large groups can control programming costs better, so why not actually control programming? They are all starting to think about not being dependent on the studios for every project,” says Ira Bernstein, copresident of Debmar-Mercury.

For station groups, managing programming investments is like managing a well-run stock portfolio. Different investments represent different levels of risk. While you might put a lot of money down on a sure thing—to the small extent that such a thing exists in TV—you want to spread the risk when it comes to launching an unknown property.

“I am highly motivated and interested to see how well Celebrity Name Game sells internationally, because that puts a positive halo on us,” says Compton. “Those are things traditionally we wouldn’t think about, but since Tribune is an investor, we do think about it.”

Patience Pays

Patience seems to pay off when it comes to syndication, whether shows start as national launches or small regional programs. The trick is having a financial model in place that can sustain the show while allowing it to grow. Often the bigger plays cost too much early on to keep those shows on the air (RIP, Katie).

E. W. Scripps—a station group that, as part of the overall Scripps company has a legacy of original production—was at the forefront of this trend four years ago. Faced with the upcoming expensive renewal of CTD’s Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, it opted to let those shows go and replace them with shows Scripps developed.

The result was the Telepictures-produced Let’s Ask America, which Scripps owns and MGM distributes, as well as the Scripps-produced The List. Both shows are heading into their third seasons. Neither can be described as a hit, but Bob Sullivan, Scripps’ vice president of programming, is prepared to wait it out.

“You don’t say good-bye to Wheel and Jeopardy! without knowing that you are going to take a ratings dip,” Sullivan says. “Name any show in syndication today that didn’t start out slow. The common denominator is patience.”

This fall, Scripps is rolling out another homegrown show, The Now, which already airs in four markets and will add four more this fall. That show came about because Scripps lost Warner Bros.’ Ellen and needed to develop a replacement.

Patience does seem to be paying off for viral- video show RightThisMinute, which started off as an idea from Magic Dust Productions, based in Phoenix. That organization’s executives had established connections with people at Raycom and Cox, who were in the market for homegrown shows. Scripps was as well, so all three groups agreed to partner up.

“When we launched in 2011-12, we launched with the support of three strong locally based broadcasters who were interested in the idea of developing for their TV stations with an eye toward seeing whether shows could catch on and move to a national footprint,” says Phil Alvidrez, RightThisMinute’s executive in charge of production.

This season, after three years of slow growth, RightThisMinute will move to the Fox owned television stations, clearing more than 90% of the country in Monday through Friday syndication.

“Nobody was doing this sort of thing at the time we were talking about RightThisMinute,” says Alvidrez. “General managers’ sources of programming were controlled—either acquire it from a studio or experiment with your own local or news programming. There wasn’t anything else.”

“As Grant Tinker said, ‘first be great, then be first,’” says Compton, quoting the legendary producer. “The first thing we have to do is be great at whatever first-run initiatives we pursue and do what’s best for our stations.”

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.