NATPE 2011: Tribune's Compton Says It's Time to ‘Get Over' Fear of Firstrun Syndication
Panel of syndication experts see cash in the market as industry looks to fill void of exiting Regis, ‘Oprah'
By Melissa Grego -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/24/2011 6:12:07 PMClick here for complete NATPE 2011 coverage
Tribune Co.'s President of Programming Sean Compton talked up the possibility of scripted syndicated fare becoming vogue again--and stations increasingly ponying up cash for programs that command it--during a panel moderated by B&C's Paige Albiniak at NATPE in Miami Jan. 24.
Tribune programs a steady lineup of off-net sitcoms--including Two And A Half Men, which it has locked up through 2021--and questioned why the station community has let the fear of risk get the best of them while original sitcoms like those created by Tyler Perry are making their way to successful runs on cable.
"Why are those going to cable?" Compton said, recalling the days that original syndicated sitcom Mama's Family was a hit. "We've got to get over that."
Tribune can be one of the groups that will make big swings like syndicated, scripted originals work, he says.
While Compton quipped "I just pray to God that Charlie Sheen lives for another 35 episodes" he also addressed the serious business question of having a number of off-net sitcom deals that expire in two-to-three years: "We're focusing our efforts toward, 'What are we going to do in 2014? Do we renew sitcoms? Do we do firstrun scripted? Do you do shows like Excused?' In two-to-three years we're going to have a lot of holes that need to be filled. It just depends on the need for the station."
The expiration of many of Compton's current deals comes as the off-net sitcom pipeline looks to be entering a dry period; and, as always, he's looking for big performers no matter the genre. "I would rather take the worst sales person to sell a four rating than the best salesperson to sell a one," he said.
Stations increasingly are willing to pay syndicators, but only for the right shows, like the elusive "4-rated" shows. "It's slowly coming back," said panelist John Nogawski, president, CBS Television Distribution. "It's not flowing out of pocketbooks but it's coming out of pocketbooks. If shows start showing success, they don't mind paying."
Noting that CTD's Excused and Warner Bros.' Anderson Cooper vehicle are getting cash as part of their deals, Nogawski agreed with panelist Mort Marcus, co-president, Debmar-Mercury LLC, that the outlook for broadcasters' health is good and portends for more cash in the market.
Marcus said shows command compensation appropriate to their risk level. Among his reasons he is optimistic about broadcasting: increasing retransmission consent payments; the competitive advantage local stations stand to gain with the drop off of newspaper ad sales and the lowered cable penetration rate; the Supreme Court decision to relax media ownership rules; and the advent of new kinds of vehicles the automakers need to market.
Nogawski underlined the importance for broadcasters to take the next step and actually invest their potential infusions of cash into programming: "We've been hooked on the heroin of barter and need to get away from that mentality because it is driving budgets so low, we can't produce what need to," he said. "There was an over-abundance of spots available so it was easier for them (stations) to give up spots than give us cash."
Compton concurred that mutual need for syndicators and stations to both be healthy, with syndicators needing the budgets to put up the high-level of quality that will break through with viewers. But the syndicators also "need broadcasters to be healthy," he said.
"We all have margins," Compton said. "I have to report to a boss who has a certain margin."
But Compton also was careful not to downplay the value of broadcast barter. "Broadcasters' barter is worth a lot of money, it's worth more than cable. So broadcast is not dead," he said.
While broadcast may not be dead, the panel, which also included independent producer Scott Sternberg, president, Scott Sternberg Prods., agreed the industry needs to get a new hit on the air soon.
The quickly approaching void this year -- as a trio of Entertainment Tonight's Mary Hart, Live!'s Regis Philbin and Oprah Winfrey are all set to retire from the sector after decades on the air - will be vast.
The panel had at least as many different theories on how to find the next Oprah-sized hit as there were people sitting on the stage. Marcus called for 20-25 on-air test runs annually. Nogawski backs a different model, sticking to tests of talent and concepts within existing established shows and not launching a show unless it starts from a profit position. Sternberg emphasized the importance of utilizing multiple distribution platforms in development and production. And Compton admitted there needed to be more risk-taking on the station level, where a lot of "goof proof" deals are done.
But they all agreed they wouldn't be in this business if they didn't believe the next big thing is out there somewhere. Said Nogawski: "We can't stop looking."
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