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In Wake of Failed Talkers, the New Key Word Is 'Test'

When five new talk shows launched last fall, it seemed as if first-run syndication was heading for some sort of renaissance.

One-third through the season, that hype has dried up. Of the five—Disney/ABC’s Katie, NBCUniversal’s Steve Harvey, Twentieth’s Ricki Lake, CBS Television Distribution’s Jeff Probst and NBCU’s Trisha— only Steve Harvey is outperforming its year-ago time periods and lead-ins.

As a result, neither Jeff Probst nor Ricki Lake is expected to return for season two. Trisha is expected to come back, but that’s because the show is inexpensive to produce and has strong international deals in place based on host Trisha Goddard’s popularity in England (where she has hosted a talk show for years) and other countries. Katie will return because it has two-year deals in place, but based on current ratings, it has work to do.

“It’s all proven that this is a very difficult environment to work in,” said one syndication executive. “I still think there’s a market there and that stations want to take chances on the right shows, but they always go in with a little bit of hesitation because it’s so hard to get a show launched.”

New Shows Now Put to the Test

Out-of-the-gate national launches, such as Sony’s Queen Latifah next fall, are likely to become increasingly rare and replaced by tests, which are becoming commonplace.

Warner Bros.’ Bethenny was pronounced DOA after it failed to secure a time slot for fall 2012. But Warner Bros. persisted, agreeing to test the show last summer on several Fox-owned stations. The Fox stations liked the results so much the group would have just let the show keep rolling, but Warner Bros. needed time to clear it nationally. Bethenny will premiere this fall.

Other tests are proving slow is the way to go. Three years ago, Warner Bros.’ TMZ started experimenting with a live show on its website. The show, TMZLive, started airing on Fox-owned KTTV Los Angeles early last year and on Fox’s KSAZ Phoenix in June. In October, it expanded to Fox-owned stations in five more markets. Last month, Fox picked up TMZ Live for the entire group, and the show is now available for other stations that may want it as well.

Warner Bros. also is running a test of Let’s Ask America on 14 Scripps stations. So far, it’s working well enough that the show is likely to remain on the air and expand its coverage. And like TMZ Live, NBCUniversal’s Access Hollywood also has a live spin-off, Access Hollywood Live. That show has been running in several markets on six NBC and six Fox-owned stations for two seasons. NBCU is expected to expand it.

Forging Partnerships

Tests have become so helpful in reducing risk that Debmar-Mercury will only launch shows as tests. Syndicators also are partnering with TV station groups to develop and distribute shows. For one, this year’s late-night play, the return of Arsenio Hall, resulted from a partnership between CBS Television Distribution and Tribune.

“When we looked at the landscape for 2013, we knew it would be tight and that stations wouldn’t pay a lot of money for daytime shows,” said Joe Di Salvo, CTD president of broadcast, who expects Arsenio to be cleared in 98% of the country when it launches next fall. “But late-night looked like a real opportunity. Many stations felt like their sitcoms were getting a little tired, and [they] were ready to try something different.”

Similarly, Warner Bros. worked closely with Fox to test and develop Bethenny and TMZ Live, and with Scripps to try Let’s Ask America. Raycom partnered with ITV Studios America to produce its news/talk hybrid, America Now, which Trifecta is selling in national syndication.

While cost-sharing approaches like testing or partnerships are becoming the norm, syndicators are always looking to pair good time periods with the right talent. “The opportunities right now are for 2014 and beyond,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming, Katz Television Group, noting that syndicators are renewing vets such as CTD’s Dr. Phil, Warner Bros.’ Ellen and Sony’s Dr. Oz, with an eye toward 2016.

“Time periods dictate development, as well as the type of personalities you’ll be able to recruit,” one syndication exec said. Even so, no one expects to see another race to market like 2012’s come around again soon.

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