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.”

Controlling 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 programming.

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.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone