Slate Is Settled for 2012: The Year of the Talk Show

Competition will be good for stations, stressful for syndicators

With Actions that seemed to happen, ultimately, in one fell swoop, syndication’s fall 2012 slate has been settled.

Warner Bros. managed to keep Anderson on the air in New York by moving it from Tribune’s WPIX to Fox’s WNYW, further announcing that show will return for season two. That simple switch opened up 4 p.m. on WPIX for Twentieth Television’s Ricki Lake, a move that still had not been officially announced at presstime but has been widely confirmed behind the scenes. With the market suddenly moving, NBC decided to place its bet on CBS Television Distribution’s Jeff Probst.

Those deals mean that next fall, syndication will see the launch of four new talk shows: Disney/ABC’s Katie (Couric) and NBCU’s Steve Harvey, and now Ricki Lake and Jeff Probst. That’s more new shows to launch in one season than syndication has seen in years.

“It’s going to be the year of the talk show,” says Paul Franklin, executive vice president and general sales manager, broadcast, at Twentieth Television. “There’s going to be a huge amount of buzz surrounding talk shows, and that will rejuvenate the genre.”

Most in the industry, especially station programmers, agree wholeheartedly.

“Every year, stations need something to freshen up their lineups,” says Sean Compton, president of entertainment and programming for Tribune Broadcasting. “[We] want to do well ourselves, but across the board broadcasters need to be healthy.”

“I don’t know what the cons would be if you are a station,” says another station executive. “Having shows available to you and being able to put new programs on the air is what you want.”

In fact, most execs were hard-pressed to find a downside to the onslaught of new series. But from the syndicator point of view, there are a few.

It will be difficult for all of the new shows to find space as sales forces dive deeper into markets. In mid-size and smaller communities, fewer outlets mean less quality time slots. That’s one reason NBC might have felt pressed to make a commitment to Jeff Probst: If NBC had waited too long to make a decision, CTD wouldn’t have even had a shot at smaller-market slots.

This gives the early advantage to Katie and Steve Harvey. Both shows cleared the top markets ahead of the pack, allowing their sales teams to head into the hinterlands sooner.

“I would never underestimate my competitors,” says one syndication executive. “Everyone will find their way on the air, by hook or by crook.”

“By hook or by crook” means a syndicator can boast a national clearance, but it doesn’t mean strong time periods. That’s another point for Katie: Disney/ABC opened up an hour of afternoon time on strong ABC affiliates for the show; Katie largely has been able to retain them.“The opportunity to be on an ABC affiliate in the afternoon is incredibly desirable,” notes one syndication executive.

Syndicators also acknowledge that more talk shows also mean more ratings fragmentation, something that shows can scarcely afford these days. But fragmentation is the reality of the business. “You have to assume fragmentation and then decide: ‘Do I still want to play, or do I give up?’” says Bill Carroll, vice president, programming of Katz Television Group Programming. “If you just concede, then you are never going to make big moves. And as broadcasters, we have to make big moves. Will it be tougher to clear these shows in smaller markets? Yes, but it’s not impossible.”

“If you are a distributor and a producer, you are in business to make shows, and if you are a TV station, it’s in your best interests for them to try,” says Rick Feldman, president of NATPE. “No producer is ever going to sit back and say, ‘I’m not going to fill those time periods.’ Fragmentation is the nature of the beast. Now you want to create content that fits into these station groups’ various configurations.”

Even though many syndicators are celebrating their early victories, there are certain to be casualties.

The fate of NBCU’s Trisha Goddard, cleared on the Sinclair stations, is in question because all of the top-market slots now appear to be spoken for. The same holds true for Warner Bros.’ Bethenny Frankel, and NBC doesn’t seem to have a remaining slot to continue with Sony’s Nate Berkus, although the group still has another year on its contract for the show.

And when next season comes around, audiences quickly will make their preferences clear. “All of these shows aren’t going to make it,” concedes a syndicator.

Even so, the attitude for most, especially at this point, is “bring it on.”

Says Franklin: “Next year a lot of people will be talking about talk as it relates to syndication. We took a year off from Oprah, and now here they come. Let’s see what sticks.”

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