NATPE's Durable Goods
By BroadCasting & Cable Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/27/2008 7:00:00 PM
It used to be that at the annual convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE), a dozen or so syndicated television shows would be viable contenders to actually go into production. As the days went on, a proposed talk show or game show would gain traction. By the end of the conference, there were a few winners (“a firm go!” the sales exes would exclaim) and some others that were never heard from again.
Things have changed. A lot. There are fewer syndicators. Broadcast groups own more stations, and can cut big group deals. And the big networks own their own studios and create syndicated product on their own. There are more channels, so ratings are a sliver of what they once were. Some of the best time slots at big stations are occupied by long-standing hits. And buying gets done even sooner now, so by the time NATPE happens, it is more coronation than negotiation.
But for all of that, syndication isn't dead. It's just a trickier, smaller business, as we suspect many NATPE attendees will be saying this week.
There are some basic truths about syndicated fare that by now we take for granted. For example, you could argue that the best situation comedies on television—Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends and Seinfeld—are found in syndication. But those off-net sitcoms are so old that they are part of the landscape of television.
Syndication's most famous and still most influential first-run talk show is The Oprah Winfrey Show, which started in syndication in 1986. She is arguably the most powerful person in the television business, a personality who can sell anything, from a book to (possibly) a presidential candidate. Entertainment Tonight was born in 1981. (Coincidentally, so was Britney Spears.) Its worthy competition, Access Hollywood, is a dozen years old. Wheel of Fortune celebrated its 25th birthday in syndication last year. Jeopardy! has the same birthday this year. Even Jerry Springer's guests have been mauling each other for 17 years. That's a lot of broken chairs.
Our point is that while it is something of a parlor game to recite the myriad (and often horrible) failures of syndication, the hits are mighty durable. And in the new metrics of television, as it turns out, syndicated fare is more likely to be viewed when it airs, not DVRed. That means viewers don't race over the commercials.
But like every other phase of the business, big change is coming. The growing popularity of video broadband will certainly bend the syndication market. Interactivity could be a boon. Multicast channels could give new life to syndicated product. Smaller station groups, like Meredith, are growing their own syndicated shows. And smart programmers are using Websites to reinforce programs, creating a community of viewers they need to survive.
NATPE, in fact, doesn't bill itself as a syndication show. That's the box the trade press puts it in. It is a content show that draws a diverse crowd from around the world, plotting the possibilities of a new age of content, from Internet networks to mobile video. We like to think of NATPE as a place where dreams are up for discussion. It's not like the old days. But these are not the old days.
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