Shopping Smart in the Digital Age

Today’s station gatekeepers creatively tackle the challenge of a fast-changing market

Why This Matters

In an age of digital disruption and shrinking budgets, station group buyers are being forced to think outside of the box.

Once upon a time, local broadcasters were able to bank on some big network comedy moving into syndication or talkers like Oprah Winfrey drawing huge daytime audiences, but that’s just not the case anymore. Not only are there fewer offerings, but the rise of digital media has made it difficult for local broadcasters to get exclusivity. Plus, buying syndicated programming is expensive, and, as anyone in broadcasting knows, the free-spending days are long gone. In turn, the executives that station groups have tasked with buying syndication are getting creative. They are creating partnerships with producers as well as syndicators. Creating in-house programming, both to air on their own stations and to syndicate themselves, is becoming increasingly popular. And station groups are creating new safeguards, like summer testing, to make sure they don’t invest heavily in a flop.

In this report, Broadcasting & Cable spotlights the innovators among local broadcasters in this arena — the programming executives who not only know how to spot a hit show, but who are now producing them as well. As Hearst Television’s Emerson Coleman put it: “Most conversations about syndication tend to focus on the nostalgic, but you can’t go back. You can only go forward. We’re about to find out if there is a smart way to do that.”

Rebecca Campbell, president

When it comes to managing the ABC station group’s syndication-related goings-on, Rebecca Campbell has a pretty big to-do list.

As president of the ABC Owned Television Stations group, and of ABC Daytime to boot, Campbell is charged with finding, evaluating and putting on-air syndicated programming that hits big with the eight-station group’s viewers — shows like Millionaire and The Fab Life.

On top of that, Live with Kelly & Ryan, the perennial syndicated fan favorite produced at New York flagship WABC, is also under Campbell’s watch. So are the daytimers that air on the ABC network, General Hospital and The Chew.

The broad scope of Campbell’s syndication-related responsibilities has grown with her expertise in the arena since assuming the ABC group’s top job in 2010.

Named ABC Daytime president in 2016, Campbell is not only responsible for making sure the stations are drawing viewers with robust programming during the day, but for creating content and strategies for making sure they stay that way in the future as well.

Peter Dunn, president

The way Peter Dunn sees it, top-tier syndicated programming is in no danger of going out of style, even as the syndication model becomes increasingly complex.

“Stations are always going to be interested in acquiring quality programming, especially when the costs are in line with the ad revenue we are able to generate,” said Dunn, president of CBS Television Stations.

At the moment, Dunn’s syndicated programming of interest is CBS Television Distribution’s Inside Edition, which will replace The Insider in September when that show ends its run.

“Deborah Norville and her colleagues do a terrific job of producing this compelling daily newsmagazine, which we believe will be an excellent companion to Entertainment Tonight,” Dunn said.

Dunn has been in the thick of managing syndicated offerings on CBS’s 27 O&Os since 2007, when he became the group’s president. He also still runs New York flagship WCBS as its president and general manager.

Dunn is a member of the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame class of 2017.

Jane Williams, EVP of television

For Cox Media Group’s Jane Williams, the key to successfully airing syndicated content is as much about finding the right time and place for programming as it is the shows themselves.

“We like to work with all our syndicators to try to find the right fit for our stations,” said Williams, the group’s executive VP of television. “Launching a show with a syndicator is a partnership, so we try to find the right time slot and marketing mix.”

That strategy has fueled Cox’s success in the arena, which includes airing the breadth of syndicated offerings — talkers, court shows, games shows and entertainment magazines — as well as getting into the other side of the syndication business.

For the last six years, Cox, along with Raycom and E.W. Scripps, has produced a show of its own: RightThisMinute, a one-hour daily lifestyle show (and multiplatform brand) designed to broaden the appeal of TV news by taking a nontraditional tack. “We are very excited to have ABC as one of our station-group partners,” Williams said.

Williams’ approach to assessing, buying and airing syndication stems from her prolific career in both local broadcasting and publishing, which earned her an Atlanta Broadcast Advertising Club lifetime achievement award, among other honors.

Williams was named Cox’s executive VP of television in 2013, after serving as the group’s senior VP the previous year. Before joining Cox, Williams was publisher of The Austin (Texas) American-Statesman and The Statesman Co.