What It Takes to Jump-Start Syndication

WHY THIS MATTERS: Daytime is a key daypart for stations, and a true blue-chip syndicated hit would vastly enhance local broadcaster fortunes.

Syndication is far from dead, but it sure seems like it sometimes. Instead of bright, shiny new programs starring big-name talent, most of what is being shopped today consists of inexpensive shows with lesser-known hosts. Those kinds of shows keep the lights on, but they don’t generate much viewer interest.

“If you came out with the next Oprah Winfrey,” said Mort Marcus, co-president of Lionsgate-owned Debmar-Mercury, “stations would pay for that.”

But no new Oprah Winfrey is on the horizon. During NATPE in Miami earlier this year, zero new shows were sold into first-run broadcast syndication. Prior to the annual buying convention, Debmar-Mercury cleared its new court show, Caught in Providence, across the country. Beyond that, announcements were mostly for renewals of rookie shows, including CBS Television Distribution’s DailyMailTV, Twentieth Television’s Page Six TV and Twentieth’s Top 30, which is cleared in 70% of the U.S.

Since then, the business has been awaiting word on the fate of a few other programs. The highest-profile project in a year came from Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which had Hollywood Game Night star Jane Lynch hosting Last Laugh, a comedic variety show intended for prime access time slots. Fox Television Stations was the intended launch group, but after kicking the tires, Fox decided against it.

The Fox TV stations do have a hole to fill with NBCUniversal’s Harry, starring Harry Connick Jr., ending after this season, its second. But for now, the group has enough programming cleared that it can cover the slot while looking for something better.

The one potential national launch that’s still pending is Face the Truth from Jay Mc- Graw’s Stage 29 Productions, which includes an executive producer credit for McGraw’s father, Dr. Phil. Hosted by Vivica A. Fox and also starring Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer, the show is a mashup of panel talk and conflict that would be distributed by CBS Television Distribution (CTD).

Getting that on the air is not proving simple. There currently isn’t room for it on the CBS-owned stations. One candidate that industry sources have speculated might end to make room for Face the Truth is another show from Dr. Phil and Jay McGraw, The Doctors, but CTD is working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Another option under consideration was to move Hot Bench, which was created by CTD’s other daytime supernova, Judge Judy Sheindlin, to another station group. But it appears Hot Bench will stay put on CBS owned stations in top markets.

Hot Bench is typically the third- or fourth-highest rated show in households in daytime, behind Judge Judy and Dr. Phil, while The Doctors typically lands at the end of the talk pack. So it makes sense that the CBS-owned stations would prefer to keep Hot Bench over The Doctors.

Another show that was shopped around starred former Today anchor Tamron Hall in a talk format that would be produced by Endeavor. Tamron Hall will not go forward for fall 2018, but the partners behind it may give it another go next year. Hall, who exited Today when Megyn Kelly came on board, made a favorable impression on potential buyers.

Stations, Studios at a Standoff

The lack of new star-driven vehicles is making the one-time go-go business of syndication feel as if everyone has left the party without turning out the lights.

“What you are seeing now is a very mature business where everyone recognizes that the TV business is a good business that’s here to stay in some form, but they have to figure out how best to manage their balance sheets,” Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution president Ken Werner said. “These businesses were aligned at one moment in time. Stations and syndicators were making money and new shows were being developed.

“Now, as the underlying economics are more challenged, barter revenue is declining, production costs are increasing or flat and stations are making less money — and thus less willing to spend on most dayparts,” he added.

Stations and studios are at a standoff. Studios want to produce shows, but, reasonably, they want to get paid for them. Stations want new shows, but they want to spend as little as possible on them, especially as they air in lower-rated time slots.

“Today, the very top of the market is probably $1.6 million per week in license fees,” one studio executive said. “In the days of Oprah, it was more like $3 million per week.”

Even $1.6 million is not chump change. But very few new shows make it to those levels of revenue and profit. The two last giant syndication hits were CTD’s Dr. Phil in 2002 and Warner Bros.’ Ellen DeGeneres in 2003. Steve Harvey’s arrival to Family Feud in 2013 took that show from almost cancelled to mega-hit, but the formula has proven very hard to duplicate. Many syndicated shows starring big names — Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, Queen Latifah, Jeff Probst, Anderson Cooper, Bethenny Frankel, Ricki Lake and Megan Mullally — have come and gone.

Late Night Did It. Can Daytime?

But wheezing dayparts can be revitalized, as the recent evolution of late-night TV across both broadcast and cable has proven.

Late night seemed like a dead space, haunted by aging white men who had been doing the same format for years. Then Jimmy Fallon pushed out Jay Leno, David Letterman made room for Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel found politics, James Corden found karaoke and suddenly broadcast late night was hip again.

Meanwhile, over on cable, stars like John Oliver and Samantha Bee created their own franchises on HBO and TBS, respectively, and a new late-night landscape was born.

“People thought it was all over in late night and there was no hope for getting more eyeballs there and just the opposite was true,” Hearst Television senior VP of programming Emerson Coleman said. “You need good product and good content and now late night is probably the most creative daypart and really competitive. You can drive viewership when you have good content. Late night is lively, upbeat and has a freshness about it because there’s been some turnover. There hasn’t been anything like that in daytime.”

That’s where sticking with the devil you know versus trying something new is hurting TV stations that are hesitant to take those sorts of chances. As a result, shows that have been airing for decades are the syndication norm. They are reliable. But they are not buzzy.

Launching Locally

Some station groups, particularly Tegna and E.W. Scripps, have taken it upon themselves to produce their own programs. So far, the practice hasn’t created any slam-dunk successes, although it has produced one long-lasting, nationally cleared program: viral video show RightThisMinute, which was created by Cox Media Group, Raycom Media and Scripps and is distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television.

In general, though, it’s been almost impossible for shows produced by station groups to find national distribution. That’s not keeping some station groups from trying. Last year, Tegna launched Daily Blast Live, which is cleared in some 36 Tegna markets, and Scripps debuted Pickler & Ben, which is produced from Nashville and cleared in about 30% of the country.

This year at NATPE, both groups renewed those shows and partnered with studios to find distribution for them. Disney-ABC is shopping Pickler & Ben, while Sony Pictures Television is seeking more station homes for Daily Blast Live. According to Scripps and Tegna, both shows have received additional clearances, although no announcements have yet been made.

Still, that represents another instance where stations and studios are finding an awkward middle ground. Many studio executives said that by producing their own shows, station groups are occupying time periods that would otherwise go to better-financed studio programs, and that’s one big reason why studios aren’t shopping many shows. But station group executives respond that they need programs and the studios aren’t producing any, so they have no choice but to do it themselves.

“Our position is let the best show win,” Tegna senior VP of programming Robert Sullivan said. “If a studio came to us with a great show, we would go after it and we would do everything we could to give it an opportunity on our stations.”

Studio executives also tend to blame the failure of station-group entries to launch on the low production costs of those shows. But it’s not clear that the amount of money spent on a show can be directly correlated to its ratings success.

“It’s very old-school thinking to think that the next big thing has to be a $35 million production,” one station executive said. “Station groups’ willingness to pay higher than normal license fees in the daytime is waning because … the [existing] audience doesn’t equal the revenue being laid against license fees.”

It’s simple math: Fewer viewers equals lower ratings and less advertising revenue. As a result, station groups need to keep their costs in check.

“It’s not the money,” another station group executive said. “Nate Berkus had maybe the greatest set in the history of the universe. At the end of the day, that’s not what it came down to. I don’t think the issue is money — I think there has been a lack of good ideas paired with mediocre content.”

Disney-ABC’s Katie, starring Katie Couric, which aired from 2012 to 2014, was as expensive to produce as probably any talk show in the last 20 years, although some of that was due to the host’s $20 million salary. But that didn’t guarantee viewers.

Meanwhile, shows like Warner Bros.’ TMZ and TMZ Live and NBCU’s Access Live are produced on the lower end of the budget spectrum, but get relatively strong ratings.

Combatting Netflix, Amazon, Hulu

All of this can make one wonder whether broadcast syndication will soon fade out of existence, but that fails to take into account the continued relevance of the network-affiliate model. While many viewers have cut the cord, a number of them are subscribing to a streaming service such as Netflix, Amazon or Hulu and putting up an antenna to capture free, over-the-air broadcast signals, which include multicast networks.

According to Parks Associates, some 15% of U.S. households in early 2017 were using over-the-air antennas for at least some of their TV viewing. Meanwhile, cord-cutting has reduced national reach of cable networks to 75% and below, making broadcast networks and their station affiliates the only video service in the country that can offer advertisers a truly national footprint.

And once ATSC 3.0, also known as Next Gen TV, launches, people will be able to receive 4K signals along with internet content via their over-the-air antenna, making a return to free over-the-air TV an even more attractive option for many.

“When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, viewers didn’t go to Netflix, they went to us,” Fox Television Stations senior VP of programming Frank Cicha said. “The local voice will still win in many situations. News, live and ‘look live’ — that’s our chance. We’re as aggressive about that as anyone and we have to do more of it.”

Moreover, stations need to offer as much day-and-date and live DVR-proof programming as possible to compete against streaming services and on-demand offerings, Cicha said. While streaming services may always have something available to watch, they can’t offer relevant news, information and programming that viewers need or want to know right now. “That’s how you combat binge-watching,” Cicha said. “Nobody is going to binge-watch our stuff, but they also won’t go to Hulu for local news.”

For their part, studios said they are keeping a close eye on the marketplace with the intention of jumping back in when the time is right.

“At Sony, we are investing in first-run programs going forward,” Sony Pictures Television president of distribution John Weiser said. “We want to disrupt the market with innovative new content and new business models.”

The days where syndicators minted money over a giant show are probably over, but that doesn’t mean daytime is dead.

“Whenever there’s a long drought, people think it’s never going to rain again,” Hearst’s Coleman said. “But it always does.”

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.