First-run syndication is a lot like school — talent, producers and crew typically get holidays, spring break and summers off. But in a year when a global pandemic has turned everything upside down, school may not be out for summer.
Contractually, first-run syndicated shows are obligated to deliver a certain number of episodes to TV stations. If they fail to do that — even with a pandemic going on — TV stations have the option to drop those programs. Considering many stations are facing reduced budgets as a result of less advertising during the pandemic, that could become a realistic scenario should studios fail to deliver. Studios obviously want to avoid that, so several of them are working to stay on the air in the summer months. Moreover, shows that stay in originals during the slower summer months tend to do better ratings.
NBCUniversal’s rookie talk show, Kelly Clarkson, has returned to original production now that the show’s host is back in Los Angeles after having holed up on her remote ranch in Montana through most of Los Angeles’s stay-at-home orders. The show did some production from Montana, but that proved logistically challenging.
“We made the decision to take our hiatus early and come back and be in originals for the majority of the summer,” Tracie Wilson, executive VP, creative affairs, NBCUniversal Television Distribution, said.
The summer shows are titled The Kelly Clarkson Show’s Summer Staycation and will be taped from Clarkson’s Los Angeles home.
“We’re really reinventing how we make television,” Wilson said. “If things in L.A. open up, we’ll maybe move into a studio in July. I feel like we have a great plan whichever way we end up going. I’m happy we are bringing some new shows this summer while working our way back to the big studio. In the end, I think the stations win, I think the viewers win and I think the show wins.”
For other NBCU first-run series, such as Maury, Steve Wilkos and Judge Jerry, it’s largely business as usual. Those shows had mostly completed production when COVID-19 hit and they plan to return to production later this summer.
“We won’t have audiences but we are coming up with other ways to shoot those shows,” Wilson said. “We’re having to think differently and look at the way we’ve always produced these shows. Forcing ourselves to innovate has actually been kind of nice.”
Other shows, like Disney’s Live with Kelly and Ryan and Tamron Hall and Sony Pictures Television’s Dr. Oz, managed to stay in originals as planned.
Live almost didn’t skip a beat when the stay-at-home order came in New York, immediately switching to remote production while maintaining access to its Manhattan control room. This summer will see special episodes such as its “Coast-to-Coast 4th of July Show” and a special wedding event airing next month. The show plans to stay in remote production all summer with hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest and return to the studio on Sept. 8, without a live audience.
The crew at Tamron Hall found that things got significantly easier to manage once they secured a remote control room earlier this spring.
“Using virtual control room technology has been a game-changer for our entire team, especially the editors,” Tamron Hall executive producer Candi Carter said. “Being able to tape our show as if we were in-studio has made our workflow significantly more efficient and seamless, which enables us to focus more on the content and on producing compelling shows for our viewers.”
That also allowed Tamron Hall to remain of-the-moment. On June 12, the show aired a special one-hour episode called “Hear Us Now” that invited viewers to listen to conversations among younger people about race and equality in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting protests. Tamron Hall had always planned to produce some new content throughout the summer “as a way to stay connected to our ‘Tam Fam’ and to provide them with a much-needed space for information, entertainment and escape during these surreal and uncertain times,” Carter said.
Like the other talkers, Tamron Hall is hoping to return to the studio without a live audience in September.
Dr. Oz remained in originals all through May sweeps. The show hopes to be back in the studio in late August or early September to start season 12, said a show spokesman.
No First-Run Tests Coming
One trend that will take the summer off is Fox’s testing of new first-run shows. Programs such as Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams and Warner Bros.’ The Real emerged from successful summer tests. This year, as a result of production shut-downs and overall tight station schedules, no big new shows will be tested. A couple of smaller, off-network shows — like a game show off cable network GSN — might get trial runs, Frank Cicha, executive VP of programming, Fox Television Stations, said.
The station group also is preparing to launch a talk show hosted by Nick Cannon this fall, which will be the group’s marketing focus later this summer.
“This was going to be a softer year for us anyway because we have a lot of shows. Most of our new stuff is coming back, including [game show] 25 Words or Less and [off-network sitcom] Schitt’s Creek, and all of a sudden there weren’t a ton of time periods,” Cicha said.
Overall, it’s been a challenging few months but syndicators are optimistic. “We could have the vast majority of our slate looking somewhat normal no later than October, which would be great,” Cicha said.
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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.