NBCU Looks to Lock Down Lockup in Syndication

Why This Matters: Less is much more as TV stations look for ways to draw viewers without spending too much money.

With the syndicated version of NBCUniversal’s Dateline clicking for stations, the media conglomerate is back out this summer with another true-crime-type show drawn from its archives: Lockup, which has aired for years on MSNBC and, more recently, successfully on Netflix.

“We are always looking for creative ways to introduce our work to new audiences,” Andy Cashman, executive producer, Peacock Productions, said. “In Lockup, we have a show that we know audiences have responded to for more than 15 years.”

The show will air in a three-week test on some 30 stations covering 45% of the U.S. starting Aug. 5 and running through Aug. 23. Stations from the Fox Television Stations, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Cox Media Group, Tegna, Meredith, Tribune Broadcasting, CBS Television Stations, Nexstar Media Group and Weigel Broadcasting groups will try it out.

Should Lockup find its way into national syndication after this test, NBCU will offer it as an all-barter one-hour strip, meaning that no cash will change hands and stations will keep the local advertising revenue while NBCU sells the national inventory.

“Stations need utility shows that they don’t have to spend cash on,” said Sean O’Boyle, executive VP and general sales manager, NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution.

Serving for Duopoly Markets

With more than one Fox-owned or managed station in several markets, “we have to be creative about how we get product,” Fox Television Stations executive VP, programming Frank Cicha said. “Ratings-wise, some of these duopoly stations are struggling. We have to think of new ways to bring fresher product to them.”

Fox will air Lockup on duopoly stations in six markets in various dayparts: WWOR New York at noon; KTTV Los Angeles at 3 p.m.; WPWR Chicago at midnight; KTXH Houston at 5 p.m.; KUTP Phoenix at 11 p.m.; and WMYT Charlotte, N.C., at 2 p.m..

Fox was among the station groups that gave a test run to a syndicated version of NBC’s long-running newsmagazine, Dateline, three summers ago. That test worked well enough that the show launched in national syndication two years ago with nearly all of the stations going on to take the show, O’Boyle said. Dateline is still going strong today both in syndication and in a weekly two-hour block on Fox-owned MyNet. Cumulatively, the show is averaging a 1.3 season-to-date household rating for its Monday-through-Friday syndication run, according to Nielsen, and it’s been renewed for a third season.

Lockup is a docu-reality series that captures the lives of inmates serving time in prison. It currently airs only on weekend late nights on MSNBC and is available to stream on Netflix. With more than 15 years of production behind it, NBCU already has more than 200 high-definition episodes in the can, Cashman said. The show appeals as much to men as it does to women and squarely targets the demographic of adults 25-54, potentially making it a good lead-out for stations’ local news programs.

“It plays more like a procedural because there’s storytelling behind this,” O’Boyle said. “It feels like a subdivision of the crime category, of shows like Cops and Live PD. In those, you are watching the perp getting arrested. In Lockup, you are watching criminals behind bars living their lives.”

While Lockup episodes don’t need a ton of editing to bring the show to syndication, some tweaking has taken place.

“For each broadcast syndication airing, episodes need to be thoroughly fact-checked to make sure that all content still holds true,” Cashman said. “We update things like inmate status and relevant legal information. Our team is checking every detail.”

Each episode must also be checked to ensure it meets broadcast content standards and usually has to be cut for time.

Branding is one objection that studios have been overcoming as syndication has changed in the age of streaming. Dateline and Lockup are both strong NBC brands, but when they come to syndication, groups like Fox have gotten less worried about those implications.

“Why is it any different than airing The Big Bang Theory, which is a huge CBS brand, on your stations?” Cicha said. “[That preexisting branding] doesn’t mean [a show] can’t run on stations and be successful.”

Summer of Tests for Fox

The Fox Television Stations have been deep in tests all summer, which is how Cicha has planned it, having said he would like to be testing shows year-round so his stations always have fresh product on hand. Moreover, the Fox-owned stations have much more space available than traditional broadcast affiliates because Fox primetime only airs two hours a night and Fox provides no daytime programming on a network level.

So far this summer, Fox has tested talker RuPaul from Warner Bros.’s first-run production arm, Telepictures. Coming up, it’s going to give comedy game show Punchline another try, starting July 15. Fox first tested Punchline two years ago, but this time around it’s going to test the concept with a new host, Reba’s Melissa Peterman, and fewer comedians, with only two comics on each side competing to provide the funniest punchline based off of the news of the day.

Starting Aug. 12, Fox stations in several markets will test Jerry O, starring Jerry O’Connell and co-produced by Funny or Die and Lionsgate-owned Debmar-Mercury. The talk show will air in Wendy Williams time periods while that show is on summer hiatus.

Just like for broadcast networks, viewers tend to tune out repeats, so Cicha’s goal is to keep as much of Fox stations’ first-run programming in original episodes as much as possible.

“I think [this model] is positive for everyone, not just our stations,” Cicha said. “Everyone is going to have to think creatively — and, more important, aggressively — on this.”

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.