MBPT Spotlight: Syndication Upfront Finishes Quietly, With Pricing Down, Less Inventory Sold

Syndication TV upfront selling quietly concluded right around the same time as the broadcast upfront last week, and like with broadcast and cable, marketers bought significantly less advertising for the coming season at price increases that were slightly below last year's upfront.

Both syndication sales execs and media buyers say the final tallies are still being computed, but both sides are acknowledging that demand was low and pricing was at least somewhat saved by a handful of top tier shows from each studio.

Still, whereas in last year's upfront, about 65% of syndication ad inventory for the season was sold, this time around, that figure is being pegged at 10 percentage points less or about 55%.

Said one syndication ad sales executive, “We don’t have the leverage we used to. There aren’t enough top-tier shows to motivate advertisers to buy expanded packages.”

Adding to the down upfront sales year – there was low demand for new shows joining the syndication marketplace.

“This turned out to be a horrible year for new shows,” the syndication sales exec said. “So the pricing wasn’t a surprise. We’ll do better in scatter.”

Price increases for syndicated programming were pretty much in line with broadcast and not too far off from last year. Syndicators and media agency execs agree that upper tier syndicated shows got cost-per-thousand price increases in the 3% to 4% range, while middle tier shows got 1% to 2% price hikes and lower tier shows were minus 1% to flat.  That compares to last year’s upfront when the range was flat to 5%.

However, with so much less inventory sold, dollar volume could be cumulatively down by as much as 15%.

But syndication sales execs say they’re not worried because they believe the upfront buying level cutbacks by marketers is not due to a repudiation of syndicated programming, but a desire to buy closer to air date.

“We’re not panicking, because syndication scatter has been strong,” a syndication sales exec said.

Media buyers agree that syndicators shouldn’t be panicking at the lower demand exhibited by their clients in this upfront. While some marketers did move some dollars out of syndication and into digital, for the most part, most just held back dollars and will buy later.

“The upfronts moved later for everyone this year because a lot of client budgets came in later than usual,” said one media buyer. “Scatter pricing has been reasonable over the past two years so advertisers feel comfortable holding dollars back. Syndication moved at the same time broadcast and cable did this year, but no one was in a rush to buy.”

Part of the lack of urgency to buy also has to do with a lack of must see syndication programming. The days when media buyers felt they had to get into The Oprah Winfrey Show at any cost for their clients no longer exist. With Oprah gone from the daytime syndication scene there is no longer a must buy in syndication.

In this upfront, Warner Bros. shows Ellen and The Big Bang Theory and Twentieth Television’s Modern Family were among the most highly priced and most in demand syndicated shows. Others selling at top tier pricing were Twentieth’s How I Met Your Mother and Family Feud. But they were not at a level of media buyers frantic to pay the double-digit price hikes that Oprah got in most years.

“Ellen is hot right now, but the show is still not doing Oprah numbers,” one media buyer said.

“Our clients are getting more selective in how they want to spend their dollars and how they want to target different viewers,” another media buyer said. “So of them moved some dollars into premium digital video like YouTube and Google Preferred but that is more expensive so they still have dollars to spend in scatter.”

Buyers lamented over the days when there was some excitement generated by the syndication upfront. In today’s marketplace the feeling is there are too many mediocre off-network shows being rushed into syndication.

“There is so much content on TV now and it is hurting the value of syndication,” one buyer said. “And there are too many shows going into syndication too soon. Most of those shows are mediocre at best.”

Buyers said 2 Broke Girls hit the syndication marketplace this year and the pricing turned out to be a relative bargain because of a lack of great demand.

“Shows coming into syndication are not even major hits on broadcast, so how do syndicators expect our clients to spend big dollars buying them in syndication?” one buyer asked. “The days of marketers anticipating major broadcast hits like Seinfeld and Friends moving into syndication are over. Syndication has become just a supplemental reach audience for many marketers.”

Lots of eyes will be on the syndication marketplace as it competes with broadcast and cable for scatter dollars. Marketers have held a lot of dollars back from this upfront and there is a lot of unsold inventory, so the scatter marketplace this coming season could become a major buyers’ market.