Partners in Programming

For years, broadcasters have complained that syndicators don't adequately address marketplace needs with their programming development. Last week, three of the biggest TV groups banded together to do something about it.

NBC, Hearst-Argyle Television and Gannett Broadcasting have formed what they say is an unprecedented syndication- programming development and distribution alliance. The debut show for the alliance is The Other Half, described as a The View-type show but with guys, which will launch next fall.

Combined, the three station groups represent 60% coverage of the U.S. And, together, they comprise the largest single syndicated-program launch pad in the business. Also, as the only major network without a studio to lean on, NBC gains new synergy through its alliance with the broadcast groups.

It may not start big: Due to time period commitments, not all stations in the three groups will carry The Other Half
at launch, but the partners are shooting for "full participation" by 2002, said Ed Wilson, president of NBC Enterprises, which will oversee syndication of the shows the partners develop.

In many cases, The Other Half
will air at 10 a.m., including on a number of the NBC stations that now have the underperforming Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
But many of the Hearst-Argyle stations already have agreed to pick up the new King World talk show Ananda, which is likely to air at 10 a.m. on many of them.

Ownership of each show in the partnership will vary and will be based on a weighted average of Nielsen market households delivered by each group, said Wilson. NBC Syndication will be responsible for selling shows the partners choose to the rest of the country, for a separate distribution fee, he said.

The station groups like the new arrangement because it gives them input into the development process. Usually, they complain, they don't have that when dealing with syndicators.

Also if a show tanks, they won't be stuck with it for two years, which increasingly has become the initial commitment that syndicators want for new shows. Case in point: The Roseanne Show, the King World-distributed talk show that died earlier this year after a two-year run.

was particularly irksome because it was expensive to buy and clearly wasn't working after its first year, but stations signed on for an initial two-year period. CBS bought King World Productions after the show debuted and insisted that the show continue a second year so that it could collect the lucrative license fees.

Wilson said that was just one example of the type of situation the partners want to avoid. "How many failures do you want me to cite?" he asked.

NBC Stations President Jay Ireland, a relative newcomer to broadcasting, said he is disturbed by the fact that, in syndication, "there is no discussion between the customer and the supplier" about the shape and direction of programs.

But Hearst-Argyle Executive Vice President Tony Vinciquerra is an industry veteran, and he too finds it disturbing that syndicators don't pay more attention to stations' programming needs. "We've been sending signals pretty aggressively without response," he said. "The issue is more flexibility."

Said Wilson: "Distributors want the highest license fee they can get from the best station in the market. That's their focus. What we want is successful shows."

Some outsiders like the idea, in theory. Katz Television Vice President, Programming, Bill Carroll said that, if the alliance can generate a hit show within the first four or five tries, it may become the model for future development. "On paper, it would seem to be a better way to go about it because it calls for development with specific stations and time periods in mind vs. fill in the blanks, figure out where to put it and hope for the best."

Craig Dubow, newly named president of Gannett Broadcasting, called the deal an extension of a "longstanding, significant and very positive partnership" with NBC. In fact, talks of this alliance emerged earlier this year during negotiations to renew affiliation agreements for the Gannett and Hearst-Argyle stations.

There is some overlap among the station groups in terms of coverage. In the event of a conflict when more than one of the partners wants a jointly developed show in the same market, the NBC-owned station gets first crack at it. After that, the NBC affiliate takes priority.

The shows will be developed and produced through NBC Studios, run by Ted Harbert, with input from the partner groups, they said. Development will focus on daytime programming, particularly 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 to 5 p.m., according to Wilson. "We will all agree on a format, and we're not limiting ourselves to typical syndication-type fare," he said, somewhat cryptically.

Asked what happens if a developed show is working for one or two of the groups but not the others, Wilson said the likelihood of that happening is next to nil. "When it fails, it fails," he said of most syndication programs.

The Other Half
was previously known as The Other View, until ABC made it clear it would sue if NBC didn't change the name. But the idea is similar: a multigenerational cast designed to give the female-targeted audience insight into lots of ordinary stuff, but from the male point of view.

In the pilot, Dick Clark, 71, was cast as the Barbara Walters alter ego. He was joined by Danny Bonaduce, Fox's Steve Santigati and Dr. Jan Adams, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. Sources say they wouldn't be surprised to see changes in the cast by the time it hits air.

Hollywood syndicators had mixed reactions, but surprise wasn't one of them. Some said the alliance was made to cut overhead costs for NBC's start-up syndication company. Some were reminded of several consortiums that came and went in the late 1980s, including one with King World and four TV groups called the R & D Network. It failed, sources said, essentially because the partners couldn't agree on projects.

Some questioned whether the partnership structure would appeal to other profit participants, particularly talent. Joe Scotti, president of distribution and marketing for Pearson Television North America, asked, "At some point, if you have a hit show, are you going to get the maximum license fees from your own stations, vs. going out and hopefully getting competition in the marketplace to drive up the license fee?"

Others agreed that the partnership appears to de-emphasize license fees and, thus, the profits if a show becomes a hit.

New Line Television President Bob Friedman doesn't think the new pact will change the business dramatically and said he's not worried about selling shows to NBC, Hearst-Argyle or Gannett stations down the road. "You're always disheartened when there's some kind of strategic alliance that hurts shelf space. But, at the same time, I'm a believer that, if there's a really good property, regardless of where it originated, it will get bought."

A number of rival syndicators called the alliance simply a way for NBC's new syndication division to get going without a big, expensive sales force. Since NBC's pipeline of off-network product is rather thin right now, with only Friday-night drama Providence
coming in the near future, syndication rivals believe NBC is trying to avoid a lot of overhead.

"This now allows Ed [Wilson] to go cheap on having a full-fledged syndication team," says one top studio executive. "Basically, it says they are not going to hire a lot of sales people, because all they have to do is clear the small markets."With reporting by Joe Schlosser and Susanne Ault