TV Stations: For Now, Stuck in Still Waters

Deals between syndicators and station groups were largely at a logjam at NATPE in Miami Beach last week, as stations renewed this year’s round of first-run shows, leaving few new time periods to fill. In addition, that lack of time periods means a lack of new development, with most eyes now turning toward fall 2016.

Many stations are feeling spooked after paying top dollar for Disney/ABC’s Katie and Sony Pictures Television’s Queen Latifah only to see both shows fail to get off the ground. Each was sold in two-year deals, although Latifah is ending its run early, leaving stations with expensive shows that weren’t working.

“We’re never doing two-year deals again. Never. Katie killed our daytime time periods,” says Robert Sullivan, E.W. Scripps Company VP, programming.

TV shows featuring household names that cost up to $40 million to produce and require two-year deals are becoming an endangered species with stations simply less willing to pony up for shows that are unlikely to turn in commensurate ratings. Instead, stations are looking for shows produced at budgets that are in line with the ratings they are likely to generate. They also don’t want to be stuck for years with shows that are clearly underperforming; instead, they want more flexibility to pull shows in and out of their schedules as warrants.

“We have flexibility with the content we’ve acquired at this point. We’ve strategically crafted our deals,” says Ken Reiner, Raycom VP, programming.

Looking to Partner Up

TV station groups also want to work with partners—whether that’s the studios, independent producers or fellow station groups—to share risk, upside and control.

“The culture has changed, the industry has changed and we have to pivot,” says Sullivan. “We didn’t get into it to have more leverage over the studios. We want to partner with the studios when the content is right at the right price. Studios are approaching us and saying, let’s approach it from a multi-partnership standpoint—that’s glaciers moving in terms of how the studios have always run.”

Scripps previously partnered with Warner Bros.-owned Telepictures on access game show Let’s Ask America that it paired with a locally produced show, The List, to replace CBS Television Distribution’s high-rated but expensive Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! on Scripps stations.

Asked whether he would make that move again, Sullivan said yes, even though the new shows are unlikely to turn in a similar ratings performance. While household ratings for Wheel and Jeopardy! are huge, “the margin on those shows isn’t very good,” says Sullivan, “and the audience in those time periods is not the audience our advertisers necessarily want.”

Sullivan did admit it was hard to make that change in access, where viewership is significantly higher than it is in daytime. “I do wish I could have put my toe in the water and maybe just done something in daytime,” he says

Such experiments can backfire too: Station marketers miss the greater number of eyeballs that higher-rated shows bring: “You do walk away from a [bigger] marketing platform for your primetime and your late news,” Sullivan says.

Tribune, Warner Bros. on the ‘Watch’

This fall, Tribune will partner with Warner Bros. to launch Crime Watch Daily, while Sinclair is working with Bellum Entertainment to debut another crime-focused series, Corrupt Crimes. Raycom was one of the first purveyors of the partnership model when it launched America Now, now airing only on Raycom stations in best-of episodes, four years ago. A broad partnership between Raycom, Scripps and Cox produced viral video show RightThisMinute, which is significantly up this year in both distribution and ratings.

“It’s not exclusively about owning a piece of content for the sake of a back-end that may or may not come down the road, it’s more about having control and taking back control. For our groups, it’s more about having a say at the table,” says Sean Compton, Tribune Media president of strategic programming and acquisitions.

Owning a piece of syndicated shows also means that in success, stations have more of a say in whether they get to keep a show on their air. Otherwise, a popular and profitable show can end up decamping to the highest bidder in the market.

Over the past couple of years, Warner Bros.’ Ellen, for example, has jumped to higher-paying stations in some markets. Stations that lose such shows to higher license fees often feel resentful, considering that they spend years marketing the shows and building their audiences.

“We are trying more than ever before to control our time periods,” says Sullivan. “We’ve been handing those time periods over [to the studios] and saying, ‘program them for us.’”

Funny Is Hard to Find

Stations are also risk-averse when it comes to buying off-net sitcoms, which once were the bread-and-butter of access and late-fringe. Part of the reason Tribune has backed away from buying off-network sitcoms in access—even considering the huge success it had with Warner Bros.’ Two and a Half Men—was because of A-level sitcoms’ high prices, and perhaps more importantly, the length of the deals, which can become a financial burden if shows run too long with declining ratings.

“We were a big buyer of sitcoms,” says Compton. “For the most part, deals were four or seven years. A sitcom that came out a couple of years ago had the potential of being 11 years. I freaked out about that. I want to be in this business for a while and I don’t want to be living with that down the road.”

That’s why both syndicators and TV station groups are experimenting with producing funny shows that are both inexpensive and flexible.

“We are looking in the comedy format space because of the dearth of sitcoms that stations can buy,” says Valerie Schaer, executive VP, creative affairs for NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution. “We’re looking to develop inexpensive, irreverent formats that are easy to produce. We are experimenting with that right now.”

“There’s more room in the market for comedic news that’s topical and has point of view,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of creative affairs for CBS Television Distribution, pointing toward shows such as The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. “We are also looking for more comedic hybrid shows—games, formats and even personalities that we’re not yet aware of.”

That’s part of the reason Debmar-Mercury is in the market with Tosh.0 from Comedy Central, and also why the Fox Television Stations have extended the run of weekly test Laughs through the middle of May and perhaps beyond. That said, an access talk show starring Craig Ferguson that would have seemed to fit the bill is not going forward.

“Today’s economics are different, so the way we set up our deals has to be different,” says Stephen Brown, executive VP of programming and development for the Fox Television Stations. “I create programming specifically to launch on the Fox TV stations. If it’s successful, we’ll make it broader or not. We could just air these shows on our stations alone, if we can find the right price point. That’s the crux of the problem: What can we produce that’s compelling for the audience that’s still going to make some money?”

Considering all of syndication’s challenges, does it have a future? The question was posed by Bruce David Klein, president and executive producer of Atlas Media Corp., while moderating a panel.

“There will always be syndication as long as there are stations that need product,” says Schaer.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). 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.