Like two personal shoppers for the Nexstar station group, Tim Busch and Brian Jones cruised the National Association of Television Programming Executives conference in Las Vegas last week with a specific grocery list. As SVPs for Nexstar Broadcasting, the duo buys programming for 46 TV stations the group owns or operates, mainly in small and midsize markets.
Busch and Jones help fill the syndicated hours for stations in places like Abilene, Texas, and Joplin-Pittsburg, a hyphenated market on the Kansas-Missouri border. Such programmers constitute a large, though nearly invisible part of the NATPE scene. Major owned-and-operated units such as Viacom and Fox can catapult or torpedo a syndicated show into existence.
Nexstar ranks 25th on B&C’s 2004 station-group list and boasts revenues of around $200 million. But it doesn’t make headlines with acquisitions. Its stations cover just 4.9% of the country, a mix of NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and UPN affiliates. Yet Nexstar’s portfolio means it is a potential buyer for nearly every show on the market.
This year, Busch and Jones hit NATPE with a two-pronged offensive: “education and implementation,” Jones says. Translation: Close deals and nurture new business.
LOCK UP HITS
Nexstar, led by CEO Perry Sook, eschews group-wide buys. Instead, in the weeks leading up to NATPE, station GMs pinpoint for Busch and Jones what they needed and how much they want to spend. Each station has specific needs for their market. In Champaign, Ill., the top priority was renewing TheEllen DeGeneres Show. The Scranton, Pa., station was eager to add Judge Judy.
But like shoppers at a supermarket, Busch and Jones need to load up on staples, too.
They were determined to renew established product from Viacom’s King World and Paramount, so they quickly locked up The Oprah Winfrey Show, Inside Edition, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! through the end of the decade. (They also lost a couple deals. In Little Rock, Ark., and Scranton, rivals poached Ellen by offering late-afternoon time slots and more money.)
These renewals were no-brainers, explained Busch. They’re all established hits. He points out that Nexstar would rather commit long-term to proven hits, instead of gambling on newer fare, even if it is cheaper.
Busch has also been burned by too many one-season shows. “I can give you 10 shows that were down and out in a year,” he says, ticking off hopefuls from Caroline Rhea to Roseanne Barr. “We’re better off investing in the few things that make money. Flashes-in-the pan don’t make anybody money.”
Failures give syndicators like Viacom some leverage. They have lots of established product, and bundling it can make it attractive to group buyers. Nexstar’s King World deal covered nine shows, from Oprah to CSI, and TV cooking segments like the popular Mr. Food.
At Paramount, Nexstar’s negotiations got heated. The two sides went back and forth for 5½ hours and took two breaks before hammering out renewal terms for product like Montel and Entertainment Tonight. Other shows, like The Insider, were discussed.
“What other option do we have with this kind of draw?” Busch asks. “The best stations have consistency.”
Still, Busch and Jones were determined to see and hear every pitch.
They hit the hotel suites in the Mandalay Bay complex and met with Buena Vista, Twentieth Television, Sony and Warner Bros. They were impressed by Tyra Banks’ smooth delivery and pilot. Banks could fit on a few Nexstar UPN stations. At Sony Pictures Television, Robin Quivers was sharp and witty, but the men reserved judgment. At Twentieth, they watched the presentation for Suze Orman’s chatfest with measured interest.
“Orman has great credibility,” Jones says, “but I don’t know if she’ll launch.” (Nexstar has yet to commit to any of the shows.)
A Current Affair, cleared by the Fox station group, also piqued their interest. At Sony, they were surprised to discover Oxygen’s raucous reality show Girls Behaving Badly.
“It was hilarious. We told them to take it to our markets,” Busch says. But it’s a weekend, all-barter show, and they usually let their stations determine those deals for themselves.
A SECOND LOOK AT MARTHA
Their most anticipated meeting came at NBC Universal. Last January, like many others, Busch and Jones were thrilled by The Jane Pauley Show pitch and gave the show strong support, clearing it in nine markets. Now some Nexstar stations have downgraded Pauley to afternoons, leaving the critical 10 a.m. slot open. It is unclear how NBC will try to jockey Pauley’s two-year deals. In the meantime, NBC Universal was pushing the unnamed Martha Stewart project. Jones was wary.
After all, Nexstar pulled Stewart’s old show off several stations after she was indicted. Now the show host would be an ex-con. But a day later, after their NBC Universal meeting, he was coming around.
“I’m intrigued by the horsepower of [executive producer] Mark Burnett, [Omnimedia executive] Susan Lyne and Martha,” Jones says.
His other half, however, took a more cautious approach. “Martha has a track record, and she has high recognition, but what about her likeability?” Busch wonders. “We’ll just have to see.”
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