Station Groups Spin Wheel on Homespun Shows

Local TV invests in itself with effort to own, not rent, hit programs

Given their combined 85 years on American television,
you’d have to be holed up in solitary confinement with
no TV to not be abundantly familiar with the syndicated
access staples Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! And that perhaps
explains why it will take a herculean marketing effort (and a
truckload of luck) to make the two shows' replacements at several
Scripps stations, Let’s Ask America and The List, wiggle their
way into viewers' hearts and minds.

But Scripps is making a
massive bet on the programs,
a game show and a newsmagazine,
that its top execs say fit
right into the company profi le
of educating and entertaining
the public. After reviewing
60 show concepts, which led
to 10 sizzle reels; after sifting
through reams of research
about what people are doing
during primetime access,
including how they’re using
social media; and after oodles
of focus grouping and tweaking;
the two programs—set to
debut in seven markets on Sept. 17—represent Scripps’ best bets in
terms of creating homegrown hits in the vital access period.

Creating any hit show is a huge long shot, but Scripps believes
the rookies can deliver a sizeable, and saleable, audience. “In every
market, it’s the same 20 shows in that time period,” said Brian Lawlor,
Scripps senior VP of television. “There are a gazillion ideas that are fun
and original and creative, and we decided
to use our own internal platform instead
of waiting for others to bring them to us.
There’s a whole lot of opportunity to try
unique programming.”

Let there be no doubt—all eyes are on
Scripps to see how the shows fare. Those
on the local broadcast side are cheering for
the concept of a group-hatched show to
fly, while one can understand why those
in the syndication community are rooting
for the two rookies, and Scripps, to fall flat
on their faces. Either way, groups such as
Scripps, Tribune, Raycom and Sinclair will
continue to invest in programming that
works across dozens of markets.

“I’m seeing more and more of this
happening,” said Val Napolitano, president
of Petry Television. “Obviously it’s
a cost-saver, with stations owning all of
the inventory. But there’s also a revenue
situation to be gained. There’s no question
there’s more of it going on.”

Your Destiny

In discussing the concept of homegrown
shows, whether it’s a new 4:30 a.m. newscast on one station,
or a lifestyle program that will work in 50 markets, broadcasters often
speak of controlling their own destiny with such programs. Tribune,
for one, is flogging the concept in both morning and afternoon, with its
a.m. Eye Opener “variety show with news,” according to Steve Charlier,
senior VP of news, and its “conflict talk” program The Bill Cunningham Show in afternoons. Tribune is also a partner, with CBS Television
Distribution, in Arsenio Hall’s new late-night talk show for fall 2013.

Charlier said the year-old Eye Opener, produced out of KDAF Dallas,
may expand beyond its current five markets. “The TV landscape has
changed more in the last three years than the last 30 years,” Charlier
said. “It’s not enough to write a big check to solve a problem in a time
period. I have 15 HD production facilities sitting empty 16-to-18
hours a day. Why shouldn’t they be operating 24 hours a day when
you have a good concept?”

Station group executives also like that their homegrown shows can
be tailored to fit a station’s needs—whether
it’s adding lucrative branded integration segments
in morning shows, giving a station a
news presence when none previously existed
or creating a program that fits into the flow
of an afternoon lineup better than syndicated
offerings. Sean Compton, president of programming
at Tribune, said the latter idea was
the thinking behind Bill Cunningham. “We
can build program consistency with what
the viewer expectations are,” Compton said.
“If we want flow between Maury Povich and
Wilkos, we can build a show like that.”

No local broadcaster will come out and
say it, but getting away from stiff syndication
costs is a primary, if not the primary, motivator
in the moves to develop shows. Tribune,
for one, has been mired in bankruptcy since December 2008.
At Scripps, Rich Boehne, president and CEO, hinted at the access
changes, as well as life after Oprah Winfrey, while addressing investors
last year. “We [decided not] to re-up shows like Wheel of Fortune and
Jeopardy!” Boehne said. “Instead, we’re going to program locally. That
will improve the margins; we’ll make a lot more money.”

While every local broadcaster stresses the importance of blue-chip
syndicated shows to their programming mix, too many still feel the
hangover from long-term, very expensive syndication deals. “Developing
your own programming looks pretty good when you look at
the fees in syndication,” said John Altenbern, president of media consulting
firm CJ&N. “If they were having
sure-fi re syndication success, they would
pay. But there’s nothing in the current
environment that’s the next Oprah.”

While the trend toward homegrown
development has been going on for
years, some believe it is hitting a high as
the fall 2012 season begins. In addition
to the Scripps and Tribune newbies, Sinclair’s
local managers speak of increasing
ratings, and revenue, from the group’s
wrestling franchise, Ring of Honor. Raycom
is perhaps the biggest champion of
R&D, with a one-third stake (along with
Scripps and Cox Media Group) in the viral
videos program RightThisMinute and
its own magazine show, America Now,
which has been renewed for 2013. “We
love America Now,” said Paul McTear,
Raycom’s president and CEO. “The talent gets better every week.”

Meredith’s female-targeted lifestyle show, Better, marks its sixth
season this month. At Journal Broadcast, five stations air the “highly
localized” Morning Blend program, according to Jim Thomas, VP of
marketing and programming. Compton said Tribune is working on
a show that marries elements of talk and court. And Bob Prather,
Gray Television president and COO, said his group has a half-dozen
concepts in the works—covering talk, crime, community—that will
debut at the local level before being considered for a bigger stage. “If
it works well, it could expand to other markets,” Prather said.

Executives at other groups with Top 10
stations privately say the topic of developing
group-wide shows comes up constantly.

Network vs. Affiliate

As the uneasy dance between networks and
their affiliates has dominated the station world
in recent years, it’s fitting that the tug-of-war
is a factor in the spate of homegrown shows
as well. “The networks own the studios, the
networks own the syndicators,” said McTear.
“It’s the dilemma we face. Other than local
news, local broadcasters actually control very
little anymore.”

And so they invest in development. The
Holy Grail for these concepts is, of course,
getting distribution beyond the owned group.
Scripps has tapped Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution to
shop its new shows outside Scripps. (After debuting in seven Scripps
markets, The List and Let’s Ask America will air in more Scripps markets
when those stations’ syndication deals expire.) Bill Cunningham
has national distribution on CW affiliates at 3 p.m. this fall, and Tribune
is in talks with stations in Top 20 markets regarding Eye Opener.

Several look to Meredith for the blueprint, as Better now reaches
85% of U.S. households. Its More program, produced at KVVU Las
Vegas, is often mentioned as something with national legs, but Paul
Karpowicz, Meredith Local Media president, said the next rollout
may come from elsewhere in the group. “We encourage each station to look at that opportunity,” he said.
Better has been a great success story—
we’ve done a very good job with it. But
I think we can do a little better.”

McTear said the syndicators don’t
exactly roll out the red carpet for these
programs. “I’ve been very disappointed
in our ability to get distribution beyond
Raycom,” McTear said of America Now.
“Producers don’t want to circulate a
show they don’t own. It makes it very
difficult for us.”

Nevertheless, Raycom’s acquisition of
production outfit Tupelo-Honey earlier
this year indicates that the group remains
committed to producing multimarket

All Eyes on Scripps

To be sure, every homegrown show is, in the era of social media,
video games and increased competition from cable, a Hail Mary pass.
Several industry watchers say Scripps has a very difficult road ahead of
it. They say the cost of developing such a show can run into the multiple
millions, and return on investment is anything but a guarantee. Furthermore,
if the shows fail, Scripps’ syndication
options leading into prime are grim.

“Access is a very visible, high CPM time
period,” said one local TV veteran. “Wheel
and Jeopardy! may be down-trending, but
man—that’s a tough road to go down.”

Despite the challenges, which became
more difficult when hit-making
icon Jim Paratore, executive producer of
Let’s Ask America, died suddenly in late
May, Scripps forges on. The group is all
in—even hiring 60 people, situated at its
stations around the nation, to contribute
to the newsmagazine. Bob Sullivan, VP
of content, continues to fly around the
country to work with producers and local
staffers and ensure that the shows have the best ramp-up possible.

“The people who run our company have made the decision to
invest in this, and the programs feel like good extensions of what
we do,” said Lawlor. “We’ll continue to look at ways to create our
own programming.”

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