Slew of New Shows a Good (Dollar) Sign for Syndication

For the first time in three years, syndicators may be offering stations more TV shows than the market can find room for—a sign that syndication has dramatically improved since the economy bottomed out in fall 2008.

In late June, CBS Television Distribution confirmed that it is developing a show for Survivor host Jeff Probst, with a pilot scheduled to shoot later this summer. Probst joins what’s already becoming a crowded field—one that could be affected by, among other factors, star salaries.

Disney-ABC has confirmed that it is distributing a talk show starring Katie Couric for 2012, and ABC’s owned stations already have added the show at 3 p.m. Twentieth is shopping a new talker starring old favorite Ricki Lake, and Warner Bros. is shooting a pilot with Real Housewives star Bethenny Frankel.

In addition, Warner Bros. is launching Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers afternoons on The CW this fall in the hopes of taking it into national syndication. Debmar-Mercury is testing a talk show with Father Albert Cutie this summer; if it shows promise, Fox is expected to pick it up. Tribune is testing a talker with Cincinnati DJ Bill Cunningham this fall, and sources say NBC is in discussions for a show starring Jenny McCarthy, who has a talent deal with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions.

That’s a lot of entries for a market that can probably sustain perhaps four new shows in 2012. Even though the daytime TV market will be wide open, it’s still a tight environment in which veteran shows are renewed out for years. And any show that needs to get cleared nationally must obtain a clearance in New York City, giving gatekeeper power to the major station owners in that market: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and Tribune.

“The most time periods you have available are four,” says one syndicator. “There’s one on Fox, maybe one on Tribune and maybe two on NBC. In essence, Katie’s already sold on ABC, and CBS is full. So there’s realistically room for three new shows in 2012.”

“There do seem to be opportunities, and we are ready to dive in,” says Paul Franklin, Twentieth Television executive VP and general sales manager of broadcast.

The economics driving the question of which shows will or won’t succeed could also depend on what their stars are to be paid. While much has been made about the money Oprah Winfrey made and that Katie Couric might make, syndication talent salaries start relatively small and then grow exponentially in success. Ellen Degeneres’ starting salary was $5 million annually in 2003. It has grown to $20 millionplus, according to several syndication sources. And after years on the air, Judge Judy Sheindlin earns up to $50 million annually for starring in her top-rated court show, Judge Judy.

But newcomers can only work hard and dream of such riches. Syndicators estimate that CTD is paying Probst $1.5 million to launch his show, and Warner Bros. is paying Anderson Cooper in the neighborhood of $2.5 million for his self-named talker that premieres this fall.

That Katie Couric and Jeff Zucker were asking $20 million up front to do her talk show was a major sticking point when that deal was making the rounds, because it will be hard to make money on the show at that starting price. What Disney-ABC ultimately agreed to pay Couric is unknown, but most likely it is far more than what other new syndication talents will make. That’s good for Couric, but not necessarily good for her show: The more a new show costs to produce, the better it has to do in the ratings to remain on the air. And as Ellen proves, longevity is the name of the game in syndication.

It’s take it or leave it for most talent these days, says one syndicator: “From a profitability standpoint, what we’re willing to pay is what we’re willing to pay.”

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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.