What If It Aired on Cable First?

A new business model for daytime and hourlong dramas emerges

Faced with shifting economics, some major syndicators are mulling a drastic revamp of the way they roll out first-run syndicated strips. And Tribune Entertainment is looking to do the same on weekends as a way to get back into the business of first-run weekly series.

In what some are calling a “modified–dual-platform strategy,” cable could get first dibs on first-run syndicated strips months or perhaps an entire season before they show up on TV stations. The idea would essentially turn daytime syndication on its ear: Today, daytime shows start on broadcast, and if a deal is worked out, the same episode sometimes is shown again shortly thereafter on cable.

For example, The Ellen DeGeneres Show runs on stations first, with the same episode showing up a week later on cable's Oxygen network—the typical repurposing route.

By using that same approach on weekends—a tactic successfully used in the past by MGM with shows like The Twilight Zone and Stargate-SG1 with Showtime and later Sci Fi Channel—Tribune hopes to re-enter the weekly first-run–hour business, with cable providing a new revenue stream to make up for the international dollars that dried up in recent years.

The modified dual platform could help boost sagging daytime syndication, too. For most producers and many stations, it's a money loser.

To fix that, some syndicators are considering giving cable the first window, weeks or months in advance of the broadcast run. In exchange, syndicators would expect to receive respectable license fees from cable. But buying from a syndicator would still be cheaper than if the cable network tried to produce the same show by itself.

Stations have already seen other repurposing models become commonplace, first with off-network series and weeklies, later with strips. The latter changed in 2001, when Crossing Over With John Edward debuted in daytime on stations and then ran again in late fringe on cable's Sci Fi Channel.

Tribune won't talk, but word is that it is open to having a cable partner run its series in weekend prime time, anywhere from two weeks to three months prior to stations' airing it.

Once a prolific supplier of weekly first-run action hours, such as Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda and Mutant X, Tribune aimed to return to the business this fall with a TV remake of the MGM film hit Legally Blonde. But when Sony acquired MGM, the studio put its emphasis on creating a Blonde movie sequel.

Left without anything to launch now, Tribune is said to be scrambling to find a new weekly project for 2006-07.

Another major syndicator is exploring the idea of first placing its daytime syndicated product on cable. It could be far cheaper for program suppliers because stations require more episodes of daytime strips than cable networks do.

Aside from cross-promotional opportunities, cable can also be a great incubator for new talent.

For example, Comedy Central's biggest star, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, struck out with his own syndicated talk show in the '90s. Today, Stewart's cable cachet could make him a breakout star in syndication.

All this is not a big surprise to Ritch Colbert, one of two principals (the other is Josh Rathaelson) in Program Partners, which distributes the weekly off-net Canadian series Da Vinci's Inquest. With the program cleared on more than 200 stations covering 97% of the U.S., Program Partners has it running first on Superstation WGN (which is a cable network) and then on broadcast, and it cumes ratings for the two feeds each week.

“In the last couple years, we've even seen triple platforms [for off-network procedural shows like CSI on networks, syndication and cable] that allow for maximum exposure,” Colbert says. “Whatever the old rules were, people seem to be ignoring them.”