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Q&A: Twentieth TV's Bob Cook Upbeat On '09

During these challenging times, Twentieth Television's President and COO Bob Cook has faith in syndication for one simple reason: “TV stations still need good product, and we have good product to sell them.”

Cook, who was inducted into B&C's Hall of Fame this past October, also plans to draw on his deep arsenal of marketing experience to marshal his company through what everyone expects to be a tough 2009. Twentieth is giving stations known brands to promote, local and digital extensions to sell around, and as much internal marketing and promotional help as the company can muster.

Heading into this year's National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference in Las Vegas, Cook shares his outlook for syndication with B&C 's Paige Albiniak.

Do you have any deals for Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? that you can talk about?

We just took that out into the market. That show has so much potential because it plays like a sitcom, so it can be paired with sitcoms or with other games. We've been experimenting and testing and running this thing in half-hour form. It's fast, and it feels smarter than even the primetime version even though we have the same host, Jeff Foxworthy, the same set and the same producer, Mark Burnett.

If you look at the top five syndicated games, they all came off the network. Games that haven't had the network exposure struggle. I think it boils down to something almost as simple as a proven product and a brand that's recognizable.

The first-run business seems to be getting more difficult. How are you approaching it?

We are always looking for first-run opportunities that have additional revenue opportunities, such as brand recognition and marketing extensions. We're trying to find product that will benefit local TV stations on a more immediate basis, and that will provide opportunities to exploit different platforms.

One of the things Mark Burnett has developed for stations is local advertising pods. We might have a question about pizza in a pod sponsored by Pizza Hut. We would let a local kid ask that question and include a local promotion. Then we would go to a regular commercial break, come back, tease what's next by giving a clue—which also would be sponsored—then return to commercials, and finally come back to answer. That creates a threefold pod that gives advertisers opportunity for unique and additional exposure. As we've suggested these notions to the advertising and agency community, they've embraced it.

How will what Tribune's going through right now affect syndication?

I believe Tribune will conduct itself as business as usual. All of the syndicators want to do whatever they can to make Tribune healthy for the future. [Due to their bankruptcy,] they've been given temporary relief on those past-dues, but that doesn't mean they aren't obligations. This is just temporary relief, to be negotiated at a later date. They've been given the opportunity to reorganize without the encumbrance of accounts receivable.

The SNTA just put out a study saying that advertising in syndicated TV shows had grown more from January to September 2008 than in any similar period over the past five years. Still, next year looks pretty frightening. How are you preparing?

The major advertisers are starting to pull back, but we've been fortunate in that we are staying pretty darn close to our budget. The challenge is to figure out how to better monetize shows for us and for our stations so our product is more desirable to them. The goal is to do everything we can to make the community to which we sell as healthy and vibrant as possible.

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.