On Upfront Eve, Syndicators Are Bullish on Broadcast

On the verge of this year’s broadcast upfronts, syndicators are optimistic about their fortunes, and for good reason, as cable loses reach and distribution and digital is increasingly seen as a risky advertising environment.

“What is old is new again and more valuable,” John O’Hara, executive VP of Warner Bros. Brand Networks, said. “Syndication is an offering that’s been out there, but like a lot of things, it’s become more attractive. We haven’t changed what we do; the climate around us has changed, and that changes our value proposition rather dramatically.”

Syndication, of course, has its tried-and-true favorites — Dr. Phil, Ellen, Live with Kelly, Judge Judy and so on — but this year it also has several new players in the mix. On the first-run side, three new national contenders are Twentieth Television’s Page Six TV, produced by Endemol Shine North America, CBS Television’s DailyMailTV, produced by Stage 29 Productions, and Twentieth’s Top 30. To show Page Six TV to some 250 advertisers, Twentieth produced a video hosted by the show’s cast.

There are also several first-run entries — including Tegna’s Daily Blast Live and Scripps’ new talker starring Kellie Pickler and Ben Aaron — that will initially be distributed only on stations owned by those groups with hopes of gaining clearances down the road.

Two new off-network series also are coming to syndication: Warner Bros.’ Mom, from Chuck Lorre, creator of The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and Mike & Molly; and Disney-ABC’s The Goldbergs, which has been picked up by Tribune and other station groups. Those two new shows join other recent off-net offerings, including this year’s newcomer, Twentieth’s Last Man Standing.

Last Man Standing has been a hidden gem,” Michael Teicher, executive VP of media sales at Twentieth Television, said. “It’s grown 47% in ratings since its premiere. This is an example of one of those shows that was a bit of a sleeper in prime time and now it’s helping both the off-network and network prime time versions.” Last Man Standing, starring Tim Allen, airs on Friday nights on ABC.

Easier Struggles

It’s not as if syndication doesn’t have its own struggles — ratings continue to decline in the highly fragmented viewing environment, and new offerings are increasingly hard to launch. But this has notably been an even tougher year for nonbroadcast distribution platforms. No cable network now can boast reach beyond 75% of the country, and that affects those networks’ attractiveness as national advertising platforms. Moreover, the clutter on cable is significant, with advertising pods running long with repetitive ads.

“We are of the belief that the broadcast business in many ways is stronger than ever and that reflects in the syndication business as well,” Teicher said. “We still have full national distribution while none of the leading cable networks are even at 80% and some are in the lower 70s.”

The issues around digital platforms, with advertisers being placed next to offensive content and so-called fake news, have been well reported.

“We’ve been helped by the news of the day,” O’Hara said. “You have a lot of sensitivity on the part of the advertisers out there to all of the things that are going on. This is a year where advertiser confidence and trust has been rocked. In an environment like that, our programming emerges. Because of that, I expect our programming to be in very high demand.”

Television also is working hard to offer similar targeted and niche opportunities to advertisers as digital currently offers.

“Television has awakened and become more data-focused and that’s creating more usable information for advertisers,” Teicher said.

What You See Is What You Get

New ways of offering opportunities to advertisers are on the horizon, but syndication can also legitimately make the same sales pitch that’s been its bedrock for years: The medium offers national advertisers “A” placement in short pods that air at the beginning of shows. And syndicated shows tend to be watched day-and-date, not on-demand or on viewers’ DVRs.

“Our shows are live, the viewership takes place live,” said O’Hara. “A lot of the off-net fare out there is comfort-food viewing. Advertisers know that with us, they are getting very sizable ratings. There’s almost nothing on television that does what The Big Bang Theory still does. What medium out there wouldn’t want to be able to say we reached viewers live, we have significant reach and it’s a noncluttered environment?”

Young viewers — and specifically millennial men — also still tend to tune in to Twentieth’s animated sitcoms, including Family Guy and The Cleveland Show. That makes those shows a place to reach viewers who typically spend their time on YouTube and Netflix.

“Cable penetration for millennials is now at 65%,” Teicher said. “When our animation runs, that group is coming to watch us live.”

While most look at the economy — the unemployment rate is at record lows while the stock market is at record highs — and expect the upfront to be solid, without a presidential election or Olympics in the mix this year, the final tally might miss the mark of last year’s highs. When all the money was counted, 2016’s total broadcast and cable take was estimated at $18.6 billion, up 4.5% from 2015 and the highest result in three years.

“Broadcast networks and syndication are the only places where you can get to 90%-95% [national] coverage,” Debmar-Mercury copresident Mort Marcus said. “I would say this fall and probably the next couple of falls, broadcast is a really good place to be.”

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.