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Shopping Smart in the Digital Age

Once upon a time, local broadcasters were able to bank on some big network comedy moving into syndication or talkers like Oprah Winfrey drawing huge daytime audiences, but that’s just not the case anymore. Not only are there fewer offerings, but the rise of digital media has made it difficult for local broadcasters to get exclusivity. Plus, buying syndicated programming is expensive, and, as anyone in broadcasting knows, the free-spending days are long gone. In turn, the executives that station groups have tasked with buying syndication are getting creative. They are creating partnerships with producers as well as syndicators. Creating in-house programming, both to air on their own stations and to syndicate themselves, is becoming increasingly popular. And station groups are creating new safeguards, like summer testing, to make sure they don’t invest heavily in a flop.

In this report, Broadcasting & Cable spotlights the innovators among local broadcasters in this arena — the programming executives who not only know how to spot a hit show, but who are now producing them as well. As Hearst Television’s Emerson Coleman put it: “Most conversations about syndication tend to focus on the nostalgic, but you can’t go back. You can only go forward. We’re about to find out if there is a smart way to do that.”

Rebecca Campbell, president

When it comes to managing the ABC station group’s syndication-related goings-on, Rebecca Campbell has a pretty big to-do list.

As president of the ABC Owned Television Stations group, and of ABC Daytime to boot, Campbell is charged with finding, evaluating and putting on-air syndicated programming that hits big with the eight-station group’s viewers — shows like Millionaire and The Fab Life.

On top of that, Live with Kelly & Ryan, the perennial syndicated fan favorite produced at New York flagship WABC, is also under Campbell’s watch. So are the daytimers that air on the ABC network, General Hospital and The Chew.

The broad scope of Campbell’s syndication-related responsibilities has grown with her expertise in the arena since assuming the ABC group’s top job in 2010.

Named ABC Daytime president in 2016, Campbell is not only responsible for making sure the stations are drawing viewers with robust programming during the day, but for creating content and strategies for making sure they stay that way in the future as well.

Peter Dunn, president

The way Peter Dunn sees it, top-tier syndicated programming is in no danger of going out of style, even as the syndication model becomes increasingly complex.

“Stations are always going to be interested in acquiring quality programming, especially when the costs are in line with the ad revenue we are able to generate,” said Dunn, president of CBS Television Stations.

At the moment, Dunn’s syndicated programming of interest is CBS Television Distribution’s Inside Edition, which will replace The Insider in September when that show ends its run.

“Deborah Norville and her colleagues do a terrific job of producing this compelling daily newsmagazine, which we believe will be an excellent companion to Entertainment Tonight,” Dunn said.

Dunn has been in the thick of managing syndicated offerings on CBS’s 27 O&Os since 2007, when he became the group’s president. He also still runs New York flagship WCBS as its president and general manager.

Dunn is a member of the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame class of 2017.

Jane Williams, EVP of television

For Cox Media Group’s Jane Williams, the key to successfully airing syndicated content is as much about finding the right time and place for programming as it is the shows themselves.

“We like to work with all our syndicators to try to find the right fit for our stations,” said Williams, the group’s executive VP of television. “Launching a show with a syndicator is a partnership, so we try to find the right time slot and marketing mix.”

That strategy has fueled Cox’s success in the arena, which includes airing the breadth of syndicated offerings — talkers, court shows, games shows and entertainment magazines — as well as getting into the other side of the syndication business.

For the last six years, Cox, along with Raycom and E.W. Scripps, has produced a show of its own: RightThisMinute, a one-hour daily lifestyle show (and multiplatform brand) designed to broaden the appeal of TV news by taking a nontraditional tack. “We are very excited to have ABC as one of our station-group partners,” Williams said.

Williams’ approach to assessing, buying and airing syndication stems from her prolific career in both local broadcasting and publishing, which earned her an Atlanta Broadcast Advertising Club lifetime achievement award, among other honors.

Williams was named Cox’s executive VP of television in 2013, after serving as the group’s senior VP the previous year. Before joining Cox, Williams was publisher of The Austin (Texas) American-Statesman and The Statesman Co.

Brian Lawlor, senior VP, broadcast and Cater Lee, VP of programming

Brian Lawlor and Cater Lee, E.W. Scripps Co.’s programming executives, make a formidable team.

As the group’s senior VP of broadcast, Lawlor has been instrumental in the rapid growth of the Scripps portfolio from 10 TV stations in 2009 to 33 today, making Scripps the sixth-largest independent station owner in the country.

Lee, the group’s VP of programming, works with Lawlor in deciding what to air on Scripps’ stations, an increasingly difficult feat as the longtime syndication model wanes.

“The challenge of creating engaging programming continues to get more complicated,” Lawlor said.

Broadcasters including Scripps (whose originals include RightThisMinute, The Now and The List) are increasingly getting into content creation themselves. The success of those shows still take “partners and patience to successfully launch and advance a new project,” he said.

“Our industry continues to need new concepts from both local broadcasters and syndicators that can energize daytime and fringe programming,” Lawlor said.

That doesn’t mean the group’s efforts are slowing down. In September, Pickler and Ben, a Nashville-based talker created by country music artist Faith Hill, will launch in 33 markets. Scripps and its production partners developed the show featuring country music’s Kellie Pickler and the journalist Ben Aaron. Disney/ABC is behind its distribution in syndication.

Lee said the show is an outgrowth of Scripps’ desire to reach underserved audiences — in this case, the American heartland — while at the same time offering content air in those daytime holes once covered by syndication. “[Pickler and Ben] will be celebrating everyday people, community, family, friends, home and food,” Lee said. “These are things that everyone can relate to, and there is a huge potential for wide appeal in a variety of dayparts.”

Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming

With fewer big off-network offerings, less exclusivity and tighter budgets on both sides of the equation, the syndication business is hardly what it was when Frank Cicha first joined Fox Television Stations 20 years ago.

“Yeah, it’s a challenge,” said Cicha, the group’s senior VP of programming. “For years, we would sit around waiting for the next big comedy to come off-network, and, for a long time, that fueled a lot of stations’ schedules.”

That advertisers are spending less on syndicated shows, and that station groups are increasingly trying to circumvent the whole model by creating their own programming, doesn’t make things any easier. “It’s tough times,” Cicha said.

Cicha, however, is hardly sitting around pining for the good old days. Instead, he has spearheaded the Fox Stations initiative of using rerun-filled summer months to test syndicated offerings to determine if audiences like them.

Since they started in 2008, summer tests have lead to the regular-season launches of shows including The Wendy Williams Show, TMZ Live and The Real, as well as Page Six TV, slated to launch this fall. In each case, Fox has served as a launch group.

“That’s a fair amount of shows that came from a strategy that 10 years ago was unheard of,” Cicha said. “This gives us the opportunity to gauge performance before going all in, and that’s been very helpful for us.”

Cicha said he expects other strategies to emerge as the business continues to morph, making broadcasters’ relationships with distributors more important than ever. “The business has changed, but that opens a door for new opportunities and new models and new ways to get stuff done, and that’s what we’re looking for,” he said. “We’ll keep plugging away.”

Emily Barr, President and CEO

More than 35 years into her broadcasting career, Emily Barr, president and CEO of Graham Media, said the “resilience” and “staying power” of top syndicated shows – most notably Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! – “still amazes me.”

If only there were more of them. “I do think the state of syndication right now is definitely challenged,” Barr said. “It has been tough to find anything that really resonates with daytime audiences in a significant way.”

Surmounting that obstacle — i.e., putting a syndicated show on-air that people watch — is one of the multitude of duties Barr has in heading Graham, the “boutique” station group named Broadcasting & Cable’s 2016 Broadcast Group of the Year.

The company’s chief executive since 2012, Barr oversees Graham’s seven TV stations located around the country, including big markets such as Houston and Detroit.

Barr joined Graham from ABC O&O WLS Chicago, which she ran as president and general manager for 15 years. Active in industry and civic organizations, Barr currently is the National Association of Broadcasters first vice chair for television and immediate past chair of the ABC Board of Governors.

Greg Conklin, VP corporate programming

Greg Conklin pays little mind to all that talk about broadcast television being on its way out. “You can throw any number you want at me,” Conklin, Gray Television’s VP of corporate programming, said. “I’m just a firm believer in TV.”

In turn, Conklin is also a firm believer in the power — and importance — of syndicated content, the game and court shows and talkers Conklin must OK before they can air on the 100-plus TV stations he oversees. “Without syndication, we would have a tough time,” Conklin said. “I don’t know to executive produce or direct shows. It’s not my job. I would much rather have a Warner Bros. or a CBS Television or an NBCU do it. That’s what they do best.”

That thinking has guided Conklin’s approach to his job overseeing syndication for Gray since he assumed the role in 2010, after a nearly 25-year stint with Katz Media Group.

Although some syndicators’ offerings “are a little on the expensive” side, Conklin said he considers many of the shows out there — including Ellen, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! — to be “top-quality programs that these people produce and produce very well.” And when shows’ performances are subpar, Conklin’s first question is whether stations are promoting them, not what’s wrong with the product.

“All the people I deal with on syndication are terrific people, and all have become very good friends of mine,” he said. “I rely on these guys a lot. As far as I am concerned, they know what they are doing.”

Emerson Coleman, VP of programming

With the traditional syndication model “challenged,” Emerson Coleman, Hearst Television’s VP of programming, believes “the next six months will go a long way in determining whether there can be a healthy future in daytime syndication.”

“It has become increasingly difficult to bring a big idea to the marketplace,” Coleman said. “The industry has been playing small ball, and that’s not the path to a winning series.”

Coleman, in turn, said “no one should be surprised” that traditional buyers of syndication — i.e. local broadcasters — have become sellers, too, working in partnership with producers and distributors to create content.

For instance, Hearst’s political talker, Matter of Fact With Soledad O’Brien, airs in syndication. Earlier this year, Hearst TV bought a majority interest in Litton Entertainment, which “allows us a great deal of flexibility in our future program decisions,” he said.

Having overseen Hearst’s programming acquisitions since 1999, when he stepped into his current job, Coleman said that while the traditional syndication model reaped benefits for broadcasters, the industry has, in fact, changed.

“Most conversations about syndication tend to focus on the nostalgic, but you can’t go back. You can only go forward,” he said. “We’re about to find out if there is a smart way to do that.”

Valari Staab, president

Like colleagues throughout the industry, Valari Staab, president of NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations, is, at the moment, finding syndication “a tough business.”

“It’s very hard to create a compelling show at a price that makes sense,” Staab said. For shows to be hits, they need to be live more than 35 weeks a year. They also need to be more topical, she said, noting, “These things increase costs.”

Winning shows also revolve around winning personalities, the kind of talent viewers want to tune in for, she said. “Good chemistry between hosts” is top priority for shows with more than one personality, Staab said. Otherwise, it’s about having “an authentic, warm and open host with a good sense of humor and interesting point of view, coupled with a strong executive producer and experienced staff.”

Case in point: The Steve Harvey Show. Staab said adding the show to the O&Os’ offerings has been a boon to the stations. “The show helped improve afternoons and provide a better lead-in to Ellen,” she said.

Those kinds of programming decisions, as well as many other contributions, have fueled Staab’s success at the helm of the NBCUniversal station group, of which she became president in 2011.

Originally hired to run the NBC O&Os, Staab now also oversees the group’s Telemundo owned stations, bringing the total number to 30. Staab is credited with significantly improving the stations and their output during that time by spearheading a wide range of improvements including investments in staff and news operations.

In 2016, Broadcasting & Cable named Staab its Broadcaster of the Year.

Ken Reiner, VP of programming

Ken Reiner is a pretty busy guy.

And no wonder. When he was named Raycom Media’s VP of programming in 2014, the job came with a directive: taking the group’s local and national programming in new directions, while keeping Raycom’s longtime relationship with syndicators (and their shows) strong.

It’s a complex task indeed, as Reiner is essentially charged with overseeing all aspects of programming across the group.

Acquiring syndicated programming is part of the gig. So is developing the group’s programming strategies so that its offerings advance with the industry.

Reiner is also in charge of scheduling and budgeting programming for the group, whose stations are no one-size-fits-all likeness of each other. Based largely across the Southeast and Midwest, Raycom stations are a mix of Big Four affiliates, as well as The CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates. It has independents, too.

And if that weren’t enough, Reiner also oversees original development and licensing rights and supervises Raycom’s corporate programming team.

Reiner was promoted to his current position — and assigned its myriad responsibilities — after just 16 months with Raycom, which he joined as its corporate director of programming.

A nearly 30-year industry veteran, Reiner brought a range of experience to Raycom. Previous roles including serving as Newport Television’s VP of programming and as Tribune Broadcasting’s director of programming, which included overseeing content development and programming acquisitions for flagship WGN Chicago and superstation WGN America, among others.

Arthur Hasson, COO of programming

As Sinclair Broadcast Group’s chief operating officer of programming, Arthur Hasson is the guy syndication sellers need to know.

Hasson already wields big influence as head of programming acquisition for the country’s largest broadcast group. If regulators approve Sinclair’s purchase of Tribune Media, Hasson, as the gatekeeper of Sinclair’s airwaves, will soon have even more.

The $3.9 billion deal would give Sinclair 223 TV stations that would reach 72% of the country. A green light from Hasson could basically give a syndicated show clearance across the U.S. — a big deal for the independent studios out there that sell their products group by group.

Hasson is well-positioned to handle all of this based on his career in television distribution and digital media. Before joining Sinclair, Hasson served as Universal Television’s executive VP of domestic and Canadian distribution. In that role, he oversaw television distribution across broadcast, cable and digital platforms.

His expertise in the arena also stems from working with major brands and production companies, guiding their Facebook and digital offerings. Subway’s “High School Heroes” is among the multiplatform programming Hasson has created.

Bob Sullivan, senior VP of programming

As Tegna Media’s senior VP of programming, Bob Sullivan is as much in the thick of creating syndicated offerings as he is buying them.

In 2016, roughly a year into the job, Sullivan helped create and launch the talker T.D. Jakes. He’s also behind BOLD, launching in syndication this fall, and two regional shows for Tegna stations — Sister Circle and Sing Like a Star.

“The current syndication model is evolving as more content creators come into the marketplace,” Sullivan said. “Development space that was, for years, only occupied by the major studios now has broadcasters sharing that space to develop their own programming.”

Which is not to say there’s an end all in sight for the traditional syndication business. “It’s not an either-or model,” he said. It’s more about broadcasters trying to “avail themselves of more options and to better control their own destinies.”

While a new endeavor for some broadcasters, Sullivan has been a proponent of, and instrumental in, station groups creating content either for their own use or for syndication.

During his five-year tenure as the Scripps TV group’s VP of programming, Sullivan partnered with producers and broadcasters in developing four original shows. The game show Let’s Ask America, RightThisMinute and The List were developed for national syndication. He created The Now exclusively for Scripps stations.

Sullivan, with more than 35 years of experience in broadcasting, said all content, regardless of who it is created by, is on equal footing when it comes to vying for the attention of buyeand consumers. Hopefully having more of it will lead to better quality offerings.

“May the best products win for the viewer’s ultimate benefit,” he said.

Sean Compton, president of strategic programming and acquisitions

As Tribune Media’s president of strategic programming and acquisitions, Sean Compton has been a leader in creating next-generation syndication models that, most notably, give station groups an active role in creating content.

Under Compton, Tribune has partnered with a range of syndicators, a step that’s seen as giving the group greater self-control, while also airing programs with greater chances of resonating with viewers. Recent successes include Crime Watch Daily, developed in partnership with Warner Bros., and DailyMailTV, which Tribune created with CBS Television Distribution and Sinclair Broadcast Group (whose deal to buy Tribune is working its way through the approval process) and which will launch this fall.

Compton has been a leader in distributing available programming, particularly classic TV, on multicast networks. He was the architect of Tribune’s Antenna TV, which launched in 2011, and has since added Johnny Carson-era epiodes of the Tonight Show to its lineup. He was behind Tribune’s partnership with MGM to create This TV.

Compton is credited with Tribune’s most recent off-net acquisitions: The Goldbergs, Mom and Black-ish.

Compton has racked up those accomplishments over less than a decade with Tribune, which he joined in 2008 as senior VP of programming and entertainment. Before joining the group, Compton was the VP of programming for Clear Channel Radio and Premiere Radio Networks.