Open for Business A Welcome SignThe syndication boom is not just about Oprah leaving, with ABC and NBC waking up and Tribune eventually emerging from bankruptcy 9/26/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
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After years of scant offerings, syndication is the most dynamic it’s
been in years, with as many as seven talk shows in development.
Why the sudden boom? It’s about addition and subtraction: The
addition of ABC and NBC becoming active after years of relative
dormancy, and the subtraction of ‘Oprah’, several soap operas and, probably
at some point soon, the removal of the bankruptcy tag from Tribune.
“I think it’s a pretty healthy environment to be out
there selling shows,” says Greg Meidel, president of
Twentieth Television. “The networks are getting out of
the traditional daytime business of soap operas, and
the networks also have opened up some daytime time
periods. With the soaps going away, there’s a revenue
pool out there from advertisers that is now trickling
down into daytime syndication. That’s all good for us.”
It’s not just soaps that have gone away, of course. Oprah
Winfrey finally wrapped her show in May, leaving a welldocumented
void in daytime and lots of viewers in play.
“The playing field has been leveled,” says John
Nogawski, president of CBS Domestic Television. “You
don’t have that one show like Oprah that always was the
woman at home’s first choice, so now you have a whole
lot more surfing going on. People are looking around
to see who they want to devote their time to. As those
decisions get made, we’ll see who the lucky winner is.”
Those changes have forced the ABC-owned stations—
which for some 25 years were television’s most stable—to
rearrange their entire daytime line-up. ABC is replacing
two soaps—All My Children and One Life to Live—with
two new panel talk shows, The Chew and The Revolution.
ABC also gave back an hour of time to affiliates to accommodate
its fall 2012 talk show starring Katie Couric,
which Disney-ABC Television announced in June.
While most ABC affiliates in top markets are expected
to sign that hour over to Katie, syndicators say it represents
a new sales opportunity in many markets.
“A time period that didn’t even exist a year ago now
exists. That’s great for us,” says Nogawski.
While Couric’s deal was being hammered out last
spring, Meidel and Twentieth announced that they
would be bringing Ricki Lake, who spent 11 years on
the air, back to daytime. Twentieth is showing stations
a full pilot that includes five segments shot in front of a
live studio audience with Brad Bessey, formerly of Entertainment
Tonight and The Talk, executive producing.
Ricki Lake was one of the first talkers to be announced
as available for fall 2012, but the field has grown and
deepened over the past few months.
A few weeks after Disney-ABC announced Katie, CTD
said it was developing a talker with Survivor host Jeff
Probst. “I can’t think of better experience
than spending the past 11 or 12 years watching people
in a setting where you can see every emotion that can
possibly be fathomed come to light,” says Nogawski.
“[Probst has] become this incredible listener, who takes
what he learns from those interactions and turns that
into incredible storytelling.”
In June, Warner Bros. shot a pilot with Real Housewife
Bethenny Frankel. NBCUniversal, recently acquired by
Comcast, is working on talk shows with three hosts: Steve
Harvey, to be produced by Endemol; Trisha Goddard, a
British talk host who has appeared several times on Maury;
and Jenny McCarthy, who formerly had a talent deal with
Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. It’s also likely that
Sony, which distributes the Oprah spin-offs Dr. Oz and
Nate Berkus, will have a daytime offering, sources say.
“You are seeing more activity than in the past few years,
because the economy is better, even though it didn’t seem
that way at the end of the summer,” says Barry Wallach,
president of NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution.
“There are lots of green lights " ashing.”
Most syndication executives expect there to be
three or four daytime slots available next year, which
means that not all of the shows in development will find homes. “Sure, more of these things are being announced,
but how many of them are real is the question,”
says one station executive.
The Katie Factor
Katie is the one sure thing to launch for fall 2012, with 3
p.m. slots locked up on eight ABC-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco,
Houston, Raleigh/Durham (N.C.) and Fresno (Calif.), representing
nearly 23% of the nation’s TV households. ABC
af! liates can decide what they want to air in the new hour,
but the major ABC af! liate groups—Hearst and Cox, in
particular—are expected to follow the network lead.
That said, selling Katie won’t be without its challenges.
According to sources, Disney-ABC is out in the
market with the show asking $50,000 per week in top-
10 markets Dallas and Atlanta and $25,000 per week in
mid-tier markets such as Indianapolis and Cincinnati
for two-year deals.
“They are setting the bar very high,” says one source.
But the negotiations are just beginning, both in and
out of the press. Station sources predictably say they
don’t expect Disney-ABC to be able to sell the show at
those prices, however. “There’s a likelihood that everyone
passes at that initial ask,” says one station executive.
By comparison, Oprah at its peak sold in Los Angeles
alone for approximately $250,000 per week. But in
recent years, as the television audience has fragmented
and the economy has tanked, prices have plunged.
When Fox bought the successful Dr. Oz in 2008, the
pricing was in the range of $250,000 per week for the
entire group. Last year, Fox renewed Oz for three more
years at higher prices, but the days of Oprah-sized license fees are long gone.
Wherever Katie’s pricing lands, the show will be
on the air next fall. It will then be up to Couric and her Jeff Zucker-led production team to keep it there.
NBC Back in Business
While syndicators are eyeing the
new ABC slot, NBC has at least
two time slots to fill in 2012.
The 10-station group is back in
business, both from a production
and an acquisition standpoint,
after disappearing in recent
years. Comcast completed
its acquisition of NBCUniversal
last January, and right away targeted
its TV stations for a fix.
“We want to grow our audience and
improve our ratings in our daytime
lineup,” says Valari Staab, president of NBC Owned
Television Stations, who came on board last spring
from Disney-ABC’s KGO San Francisco. “Daytime is a
key priority, given it’s the lead-in to our evening newscasts.
We’re really taking a hard look at everything to
see what works and what needs to improve. We have
10 stations in 10 unique markets, so we can’t take a
one-size-fits-all approach—we’re highly focused on
what works best in each of our 10 markets.”
Over the past few years, NBCU has filled its daytime
with economically produced shows such as Daily Connection,
LXTV and In the Loop With iVillage, which takes
existing NBCU content and repurposes it into new
shows. NBC also has filled holes with shows that it can
acquire without much investment, such as corporate
cousin Bravo’s off-network Real Housewives or Entertainment
Studios’ We the People With Gloria Allred. For
the most part, all those programming decisions have
done is degrade daytime ratings on the NBC stations.
That’s why NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution
is developing talk shows with Steve Harvey,
Trish Goddard and Jenny McCarthy—there’s plenty of
room on the NBC stations for new programming.
“NBC could do even three hours, but they won’t, because
stations in the rest of the country can’t support that
many shows,” says one syndicator. “That’s NBC’s problem.”
But the marketplace thinks NBC is set to jump back
in as a buyer—from anywhere.
“Don’t make the assumption that because NBC is going
more into the production business that they’ll only
buy from themselves,” says another syndication exec.
“They will still go for the best show.”
Of the three NBCU shows, most industry observers
say Steve Harvey’s is the most likely to go forward.
Goddard could make it to air because of her Maury
cred, and because she ! ts into lineups that are already
full of conflict talkers—namely, Maury, Jerry Springer
and Steve Wilkos. Jenny McCarthy seems the least likely
of the three to get on the air.
Either way, putting NBC and
ABC back into play is rejuvenating
the syndication marketplace.
“These are two big players
haven’t really done anything
for years. Now both are back in the
game,” says Ira Bernstein, Debmar-Mercury copresident.
Eyeing Vulnerable Time Slots
While it is difficult to determine what time slots will
be available next year, there are some to keep an eye
on. While rival syndicators say Sony’s Nate Berkus could
be on the bubble to return next year, Sony execs maintain
that while they would like to see numbers improve
(usually around a 1.0 in households), Nate could continue
at these levels. The show has a three-year deal with
the NBC stations—it just entered its second season—
but the rest of the country has only signed it for two
seasons. Sony is hoping new executive producer Corin
Nelson can help improve the show’s ratings.
Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams—which consistently
ranks last among talk shows, although it turns
in a decent performance in New York—is in a similar
situation. CTD replaced Nancy Grace with Judge Jackie
Glass on Swift Justice, but the survival of that show—
sold last year in two-year deals—also is in question.
Syndicators also are eyeing NBCU’s Access Hollywood
Live, which airs on the NBC-owned stations and some
Fox-owned stations, but isn’t nationally cleared.
Finally, the new shows—Anderson, We the People with
Gloria Allred, Debmar-Mercury’s Jeremy Kyle and Tribune’s
Bill Cunningham—are still wild cards. All of the
shows boast top-market clearances, so people are keeping
a close eye on their ratings. In particular, syndicators
say that what Tribune decides to do with even an
hour of daytime has national ramifications.
“When Tribune buys something, it’s very displacing,”
says one syndicator. “If Tribune decided to buy
Jeff Probst, for example, that means Probst is launching.”
And after several years of ! nancial dif! culties and
pending lawsuits, Tribune finally is expected to exit
bankruptcy within the next six months. When that
happens, Tribune is likely to step up its game both as a
producer and a buyer. Like Tribune, Fox has a great deal
of influence over what gets cleared across the country,
and all the more now that Fox has improved its stations
with more news and informational programming.
“The Fox-owned stations look much more like traditional
affiliates,” says one syndicator. “That’s been a big
part of their retransmission-content strategy. They are
working to put on the best syndicated shows and the
best newscasts, so that they can then go out there and
ask for big retrans cash.”
Meanwhile, there’s only one traditional station group
that isn’t really in play for 2012: CBS, which, with
shows such as Dr. Phil and Judge Judy renewed out for
years, has few available slots.
Expensive Is the New Cheap
The possibility of trading quality for retrans money
partly explains syndication’s return to something syndicators
once did without thinking: spending money.
“Viewers have been blessed with big television
shows with big budgets,” says Meidel. “It started with
Oprah and today you see it in Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Ellen.
These are expensive television shows, and viewers embrace
them. There are no shortcuts. If you put something
cheap on the air, the viewer can smell it.”
This season, that’s particularly true with Anderson,
which by all reports and appearance is costly. It’s shot at
the Time Warner Center in central Manhattan, and the
sleek CNN anchor greets audiences in front of a wall
of windows overlooking Columbus Circle. Anderson
premiered to low ratings, but that’s due more to weak
clearances in top markets than a lack of spending on
Warner Bros.’ part.
Anderson Cooper has been clear that he’d like to be
the new Oprah, but his gender may be working against
him. According to some syndicators, what’s needed
on daytime TV is a “girlfriend,” which was the key to
Oprah’s success. Disney-ABC hopes that will be Katie.
Warner’s is placing that bet on Bethenny, while Twentieth
hopes TV stations turn to Ricki.
“All of my research indicates that what we need next is
a ‘girlfriend’ show,” says Ken Werner, president of Warner
Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. “We need a woman
who talks to women in a way that they ! nd engaging
and understanding. It’s companionship television. That’s
what’s missing now. That’s where the real opportunity is.”
None of these opportunities will matter if syndicators
can’t find shows that break out. While they are all fiercely competitive with each other, syndicators agree
on one thing: they want shows to work.
Says Meidel: “Shows that work provide more leadins.
They encourage station group owners to take more
risks. This is a business of risk, but it’s also one of reward.
That’s what it’s all about.”