Successful Series Are Good; Big Brands Are Better

Related: B&C's 2015 Preview

In 2015, the most successful first-run shows in syndication will evolve from being strictly TV programs into multiplatform brands.

That’s ever more important from the point of view of engaging customers—and it’s a challenge that remains difficult to quantify and thus tough to monetize. But that’s changing.

“We still don’t know if we can improve a show’s ratings because of digital or social but we can improve a viewer’s overall experience and affinity for the brand and that will drive the business overall,” says Lisa Hackner, executive VP, daytime and syndication, ABC Entertainment Group.

“I think ultimately you can monetize that engagement,” says Stephen Brown, executive VP, programming and development, Fox Television Stations. “[Cost-per-thousands] are rising on the digital platforms. They aren’t quite at the level that TV is but they are growing. I think as the advertisers see more and more of their audience there, they will shift. Advertisers want to be where the audience is.

Digital is an important enough consideration that when Hackner set about casting the company’s new panel talk show, The F.A.B. (fun and beautiful), one of the things she and her team sought was talent with strong social media followings. F.A.B. star Tyra Banks, for example, has nearly 12 million Twitter followers and almost 6.5 million Facebook likes.

“The fact that we can go to launch with a digital footprint of almost 30 million on a multi-hosted show with talent that’s already having conversations with the audience, that’s incredibly important,” says Hackner.

Ideally, having a social media following in place means the talent is bringing their own audience, which is a form of pre-branding.

That means producers have to keep initial costs low, and produce for the ratings they expect to get, not the ratings they hope for. And while social media followings are growing, ratings are dropping, and that means producers need to be careful about budgets.

While producers hold out hope that a show could hit it big out of the gate—a la CTD’s Dr. Phil, which debuted in 2002 and was the last time a syndicated show was an out-of-the- box hit—the far more likely scenario is that a show opens to modest numbers and then grows into its success. That’s been true for Ellen, The Wendy Williams Show and Family Feud.

Test First, Then Proceed

Part of helping to determine what should be invested in a show going forward will be airing short tests in a few markets, a model that’s already frequently used by Fox, Debmar-Mercury and Warner Bros.

“Test, test, test, that’s how you avoid a lot of these problems,” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury, which first rolled out Wendy Williams that way. “I don’t understand why there’s not more of it.”

“We do tests so that we can be nimble and responsive,” says Brown. Last summer, Twentieth tested two strips, Hollywood Today Live and The Daily Helpline and a weekly hour, Laughs, which has been picked up to run through early May. While Helpline isn’t expected back, the jury is still out on Hollywood Today, developed from a website of the same name.

Like Hollywood Today, Brown emphasizes that day-and-date shows, such as talk and entertainment news, need to be as immediate as possible, because that’s what today’s viewers are used to getting. What reels audiences in are personalities that excel at starting topical conversations about current subjects.

“If you look at why online stuff, online videos and those personalities are popular, it’s because they are authentic and they are personal. When you see something on TV that is live, you see all the mistakes. You see things that are personal, authentic and real. That is the trend and the direction in which we have to go if we want to stay relevant and successful,” says Brown.

Brown also looks at platforms such as Facebook and games such as Candy Crush as competitors. “Our problem is that we are not creating compelling programming to bring that audience back. They are still looking to be entertained, but we are not providing the entertainment that they want,” he says.

The business is changing fast, and syndicators need to keep pace.

“There are so many profound changes happening in our business right now,” says Brown. “Ultimately, the consumer is going to demand their product in a different way.”

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.