While Oprah’s future was again called into question Thursday, Dr. Phil isn’t going anywhere.
CBS Television Distribution has a definitive answer to one of syndication’s most important questions: It has renewed Dr. Phil through the 2013-14 season in 70% of the country, on stations from the CBS, Gannett, Belo, LIN Television, Cox and Media General groups.
"I am delighted that the Dr. Phil family of stations believes in and have made such a long-term commitment to what we are doing," said Dr. Phil McGraw. "The commitment they have made to carry our show until 2014 inspires us even more to provide them with the "Gold Standard" in programming -- programming that they will continue to be proud to broadcast."
Whether CTD would be able to bring back the show when its current contract expires in 2011 had been an open question in the industry due to the show’s high license fees and ratings challenges. In addition, complaints about the perceived negative bent of Dr. Phil’s content persisted in recent months, causing some observers to question whether the show would be renewed. But CTD executives say they were able to devise some creative deal-making to boost the appeal of bringing back the show for all involved, including host and executive producer Dr. Phil McGraw.
“All of these stations really want us to understand their business and be sympathetic to their needs,” says John Nogawski, CTD’s president. “We structured the license fees so that they made more sense to [the stations] than if they didn’t do the deal.”
“It made sense for us to do this deal for all the right reasons,” says Dennis Williamson, Belo’s executive VP and CFO. “We felt that Dr. Phil was going to continue to be a foundation show for our stations in the afternoon.”
Neither CTD nor stations would reveal the deal’s precise terms, but it certainly involves reductions in license fees. “I prefer having our shows renewed out for the long term even if there’s less money attached,” says Joe DiSalvo, CTD’s president of domestic TV sales.
Sources says the new deal involves restructuring the syndicator’s contracts with stations so that their license fees are lowered for the remaining two years of the current deal and then extended at those reduced levels for an additional three years, taking the show through the 2013-2014 season.
Such restructuring of syndication deals isn’t uncommon in this economy, when several TV station groups have been forced to declare bankruptcy. “It makes sense to go out and be proactive in constructing a deal that helps the client now and into the future,” says one syndication executive. “Most transactions are being discussed in that manner today.”
As for the show’s content, “We listened to the stations,” Nogawski says. “We did a ton of focus-group testing and research. We take all of that data into consideration with the producers. We feel the show is resonating with the audience.”
While Dr. Phil has declined 38% in households over the past five years and 28% in the past year alone, the show is still second only to CTD’s Oprah among talkers. Station-group chiefs say they’ve seen ratings for shows go up and down over the years, and they hope that Dr. Phil can recover some of its ratings strength by making some changes in its content.
“We’ve had good books and bad books even with Oprah, but they always seem to get themselves back on track and recover,” says Michael Fiorile, vice chairman and CEO of Dispatch Broadcast Group. “Dr. Phil is no different. We’re hoping that [the show] improves from its current ratings level, and we’re taking a gamble that it will.”
Fractionalization has become television’s norm, and daytime TV has been tough for all players. Even Oprah has suffered steep ratings drops over the past five years, declining 35% in households from a peak 7.1 season average in 2004-05.
Whether or not Oprah Winfrey will return after her contract expires in 2011 is another important question. Oprah is one of syndication’s most expensive shows, and many TV station executives say they won’t be able to renew the show at today’s prices. Speculation about Winfrey taking her talk show to her new cable network, OWN, heated up following a report Nov. 5 published by Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Finke. (Related: Report Says ‘Oprah' Jumping to OWN)
If Oprah ends its run on stations either way, syndicators will be scrambling to win those time slots on stations across the country.
In general, talk shows as a genre are down 45% in households since 2004. Declines were even worse in younger demographics, including a 50% drop in adults 18-49.
As syndicators try to stanch the bleeding, what seems to be resonating with daytime audiences are shows that provide information and advice, such as Sony’s Dr. Oz and CTD’s The Doctors, created and executive-produced by McGraw’s son, Jay.
“If anyone is well suited to talk about what’s happening in America today, it’s Dr. Phil,” Nogawski says. “He’s America’s therapist, and people need to be fixed right now. He’s well suited for what audiences want to watch.”