Does Syndie Kill Net Hits?
By Steve McClellan -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/18/2004 7:00:00 PM
When Warner Bros. took ER into syndication in 1998, the show's ratings were still on the rise at NBC. By the end of the1998-99 season, after ER started airing daily and on the weekends in a shared cable and broadcast syndication window, the show's run on NBC was down 14%.
|Kiss of Death|
|Since 1987, 68% of shows that had stable or growing ratings lost ground on the network during initial syndication season|
|Program||Year syndicated||Year before syn.||Year of syn.|
|Source: Magna Global USA
|Who's the Boss||1988||+3%||-6%|
|Married With Children||1991||+3%||-2%|
|Beverly Hill 90210||1994||+8%||+7%|
|American's Most Wanted||1995||+19%||-18%|
|Just Shoot Me||2001||+51%||-14%|
|Everybody Loves Raymond||2001||+17%||+1%|
|King of the Hill||2001||+11%||-21%|
By the end of the following season, the NBC run was down another 10%. That means ER on NBC lost almost one out of four viewers in just two years.
Of course, TV shows naturally age. Often, by the time they get to syndication, even if they're still on a network in first run, the show is just about out of gas.
But the ER trend is repeating with Friends, which Warner Bros. took to syndication the same year it took ER, 1998. And like ER's, Friends' ratings were still rising on NBC, 2% during the 1997-98 season. By the end of the next season, though, after Friends started airing daily in syndication, its ratings on the network had fallen 4%. After two years in syndication, Friends' ratings had fallen 18% on NBC.
Coincidence? Steve Sternberg, executive vice president, director of audience analysis, for Magna Global USA, believes launching a network hit in syndication is a big factor leading to the demise of the original. He thinks it could even contribute to the cancellation of some network shows before their time.
In a study released last week, Sternberg found that, in most cases, the debut of a network show in syndication coincided with a drop in ratings for the show's continuing run on the network. Since 1987, 61 prime time network series have gone into syndication while continuing their broadcast runs. The study found that 46 series, or 75%, suffered immediate network rating declines.
Others note, and Sternberg acknowledges, that there are other contributing factors to ratings erosion.
Over time, as shows age, they lose their appeal to a certain percentage of the audience. In a way, syndication is the natural evolution of a series no longer fresh enough for prime time. Time-period switches, cast changes, increased competition from various sources, and production problems all factor into a show's decline.
But, Sternberg said, for some shows, "early" syndication takes its toll.
The hardest hit was ABC's Sabrina, which plummeted 59% on the network in 2000, the year it bowed in syndication. Coach also stumbled badly on ABC the first year it was syndicated, declining 45%.
"I think that bringing a show into syndication probably takes a year or two off the life of its network run," Sternberg said. "Producers make their real profits in syndication, and they will get a bigger license fee if the show enters syndication when its network run is still getting strong ratings.
"It's hard to pinpoint precisely how much of the network erosion is attributable to the extra syndication exposure," he added. "But, since about three-quarters of shows decline immediately, whether or not they were declining beforehand, it has to be a significant contributing factor."
Some shows, of course, buck the trend and show a ratings increase on the network after they hit the syndication marketplace. Seinfeld, for one, was a notoriously slow starter when it bowed on NBC in 1990. During the 1995-96 season, when stations started airing repeat packages, the network run surged 10%. Similarly, the network run of The X-Files got an 8% boost on Fox when it entered syndication during the 1997-98 season.
Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, Katz Media Group, cites Law & Order as another example of a show that got a bump in network ratings after entering syndication. "It was doing well on NBC, but then it was introduced to a new and slightly more upscale audience on A&E, and that audience got caught up it" and started tuning in to the NBC run.
Syndicators take issue with the Magna study. Bruce K. Rosenblum, executive vice president, media research, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, said that most shows on the networks don't even make it to four years and that those that do are obviously going to show some ratings erosion.
A Warner Bros. study, he said, shows that, over the past 14 years, 428 comedies launched on the networks. Of those, just 13% lasted four or more seasons, and only 11% actually made it to syndication. And just nine of those 428 shows, or 2%, are what could be described as bona fide hits in syndication.
Rosenblum also noted that a study of programs airing in the 1970s reveals consistent patterns of ratings erosion after four or five years—at a time when most shows didn't go to syndication until year six. The point being, he said, most shows are going to have audience erosion by year four or five, with or without the addition of a syndication window.
"As far as the syndication presence hurting the network, I don't buy that," he said. "There is a natural erosion for many shows by the end of the third and fourth years because many of these shows just simply run out of ideas. ... Very few shows have really gone over five or six years. It's really just a handful of shows that maybe went 10 seasons. That's an elite class."
Others suggest that any study of this sort put out by a big media-buying concern—Magna Global is the biggest—is designed to provide advertisers with ammo to knock down prices during negotiations.
But Sternberg said that's not the point and he's not suggesting that advertisers avoid shows that go into syndication. "Buyers simply need to anticipate the potential audience decline."
Perhaps the solution is to buy the show in all its available windows? Maybe, maybe not, he said. "Buying the show in all available windows is a case-by-case situation, depending on target audience, efficiencies, etc. Often times, the syndication run, because of the multiple time slots, lead-ins, and competition across various markets, will have a substantially different audience skew from the network broadcast."
Carroll thinks Sternberg may be overstating just how much of a factor syndication is in a network show's declining ratings. "Is it a contributing factor? Yes, absolutely. But I don't think you can say it's an overriding factor."
He agrees with Rosenblum that, by the time most series are ready for syndication—at least four years into their network run—the program is already far along in terms of the normal TV life cycle. "At that point, shows are naturally more prone to ratings erosion."
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