In a Slow Market, Stations Fend for Themselves

Not long ago, the rule in syndication was that a show had to be cleared nationally in order to launch. That meant placement in the country’s top three TV markets: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Since there were only five owners of TV stations in those markets—ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and Tribune—those groups were considered the gatekeepers. Large groups that didn’t own stations in those top markets—Sinclair, Gannett, Belo, Scripps, Raycom, Media General and so forth—were stuck with the programming choices made by their big-city peers. Those days are over.

With consolidation, station groups have gotten large enough to produce their own programming. Arguably, none of these efforts has really worked yet—no proverbial hit has emerged—but the groups are committed to trying.

“The common denominator, whether it’s us or anyone else, is the desire to own your own content and have a diverse portfolio of production,” says Bob Sullivan, Gannett Broadcasting (soon to be Tegna) senior VP, programming.

There are two sides to that coin, though. Owning your own programming means that stations get to control production costs (to the extent that it’s possible), while keeping all of the advertising inventory, thus guaranteeing no pesky barter splits with distributors. If a show is successful, the group can also be sure that no one is going to come along and demand increased license fees for the program.

That said, the far more likely case is that the show will not succeed. Then the station group is stuck with a cascading flow of problems: The show would likely have lost money. If it was not a success, it was probably low-rated, degrading the time period, which would mean it didn’t deliver a strong lead-in, hurting the shows that came before and after it. Producing shows also often requires partnering with other groups, and that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

“It depends on who’s across the table from you,” says Sullivan. “Do they have like-minded interests? What kinds of shows are they looking for? Most groups have different portfolios of programs on their air.”

Keeping this upside-downside balance in mind, station groups are pursuing adding production to their overall mix of show development and acquisition.

“The national syndication model has become extremely difficult,” says Frank Cicha, senior VP, programming, Fox Television Stations. “It’s been hit by soft ad markets, low ratings and not a lot of new ideas. Plus, there are now tons of other platforms to watch anything you want, which contributes to lower ratings. That’s all combined to create a situation where it’s very hard to make money if you’re not established, A-level product.”

In the past couple of years, studios have brought few new offerings to the market. This year, only three new national shows are launching—Warner Bros.’ Crime Watch Daily, Disney-ABC’s The FAB Life and NBCUniversal’s Crazy Talk. That leaves very little from which to choose if you are a group such as Fox, Sinclair or Nexstar with plenty of duopoly stations to program.

This fall, Fox Television Stations will partner with Media General to launch Hollywood Today Live in select markets of both groups. Fox tested the show last summer to so-so ratings, but the group liked what it saw enough to push to bring it back.

Fox also has had success with TMZ Live, which is produced by Warner Bros. but is not nationally cleared, and with the weekend show Laughs, which the Fox stations produce and air in 11 markets.

The advantage of a show like Laughs is that “we can produce it at a price point where it’s financially feasible,” says Stephen Brown, executive VP, programming and development, Fox Television Stations. “And once we get enough episodes, we can sell it to cable, internationally or even carve it up and sell it digitally. There are all different ways to monetize it once we have the asset.”

‘Minute’ Running Out of Time

Meanwhile, another show that seemed like a success story out of this station-partnership model, RightThisMinute, is losing its clearances on most Fox stations. That show had been averaging a national rating in the mid-ones, but it’s not performing among the key demographics, leading Fox to drop it.

Gannett is looking at launching shows targeted to regions. “We now reach 80% of the state of Texas with our stations,” says Sullivan. “That offers a real possibility of a regional launch.”

While a Texas-focused show isn’t likely to end up in national syndication, Sullivan hopes to take that format and target it toward different regions, such as the Northwest or the Southeast.

Regardless of the method, it’s all about following the single guiding rule of television: “Whether we own the program or not, we want hits,” says Cicha. “If there’s a show that works that we don’t own vs. a show that doesn’t work that we do own, I want the one that works.”

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.