If syndication chiefs and station heads have one sentiment in common this winter, it's this: “Times are tough.” That's the overwhelming feeling as the industry heads into this year's gathering of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) in Las Vegas.
“The syndication business is considering 2009 to be a rebuilding year, a pulling-ourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps year,” says John Nogawski, president of CBS Television Distribution. “And 2010 is going to be an exciting launch year.”
That 2009 is going to be a rough ride is evidenced by the number of shows already expected not to return to syndication next fall: Twentieth Television's The Morning Show With Mike and Juliet, Warner Bros.' Tyra Banks (although Tyra will air in double runs on The CW Network in the afternoon), Debmar-Mercury's Trivial Pursuit: America Plays, and Sony Pictures Television's Judge David Young and Judge Karen. Several other shows, such as Twentieth's Cristina's Court, are reported to be on the bubble.
In addition, one show that was cleared in much of the country and appeared well on its way to launch, CBS Television Distribution's T.D. Jakes, has been put on hold until 2010.
“We got caught in a perfect storm,” says Bob Cook, president and COO of Twentieth Television. “The [cost-per-thousands] are smaller, and local broadcasters can't pay the kind of license fees they have been able to pay in the past. Economically, we weren't able to make Mike and Juliet work without compromising the quality we were putting on the screen.”
Maybe the syndication business needs to press the reset button. In fact, several executives say today's current environment might bode well for syndication and television in the long run, much as a broad brushfire can be good for the overall long-term health of a forest.
“In a strange way, this kind of culling of the herd that's happening might be good for the syndication business,” Nogawski says. “I look at this year as very beneficial for the longevity of our TV shows.”
Thus far, only two shows seeking national distribution can boast of being what the industry calls a “firm go”: Sony's Dr. Oz, produced by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions, and Debmar-Mercury's Wendy Williams. Another strong possibility: Twentieth's Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? just went to market last month, but most observers expect that show to proceed as well.
Litton's all-barter strip, Street Court, also appears well on its way to launching this fall, with clearances on WPIX New York and WCIU Chicago.
Paul Karpowicz, president of Meredith Broadcasting Group, says that its localized newsmagazine, Better, also can be considered a firm go for fall, with more than 40 markets signing on.
At this point, only one rookie has confirmed that it will return next year, CTD's The Doctors, although NBC Universal also is expected to bring Deal or No Deal back for year two. At presstime, negotiations around that show were underway between NBCU and station groups.
Warner Bros. has two-year deals for The Bonnie Hunt Show, which is averaging a 1.0 live-plus-same-day national household rating, and says the program has station support and should return for year two. Program Partners also says that Family Court With Judge Penny, produced by 44 Blue Productions, will be back, although that show has yet to come close to a 1.0 national household rating.
Still unclear are the futures of Warner Bros.' Jeanine Pirro, which the studio is bringing to first-run syndication off The CW, and Program Partners' Marie, starring Marie Osmond.
The departure of so many shows and the arrival of so few new ones would seem to leave stations with an overwhelming number of holes to fill, but most station programming chiefs say they are in good shape for fall.
This year, the Fox station group has been the most active buyer of new shows, securing Wendy Williams and Dr. Oz in first-run for daytime, NBC's The Office and Twentieth's My Name Is Earl for access and late fringe, and Twentieth's Bones for weekends.
“I think the lack of first-run is indicative of the studios not being able to swallow those big bets year after year,” says Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for the Fox Television Stations. “But we've always wanted to control more of our shelf space. We're continually looking at how much more local programming we can do on stations.”
Making The Best Of A Bad Situation
Over the past year, Fox has added several new local newscasts. In 2008, KTTV Los Angeles added half-hour newscasts at 10 a.m. and noon, WFLD Chicago expanded its Good Day franchise for another hour at 9 a.m., KRIV Houston added a one-hour newscast at 5 p.m., and WJBK Detroit added a half-hour news program at 4:30 a.m.
“We're all in a bad situation economics-wise, but we still want to get the best programs available, at deals that reflect the current reality and that hopefully get the best ratings,” Cicha says. “From a strategic standpoint, what we do hasn't changed at all.”
Adding local newscasts and other local programs is a goal of many station groups that are looking to differentiate themselves from cable networks and Web video portals with local and exclusive shows.
Syndication's other major buyer, Tribune, entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, but the company says it's “business as usual” as far as programming purchases are concerned. Sources say Tribune has been in the bidding mix on several shows. It also purchased and planned to launch T.D. Jakes before CTD decided to hold the show for a year due to the economy.
Sean Compton, Tribune's senior VP of programming and entertainment, says Tribune is always looking for the next great thing, but it's also looking for shows that are economically feasible as well as exclusive.
“You can't make a decision that all the programming you are going to buy is going to be produced as efficiently as, say, TMZ,” Compton says. “But if you were going to invest in a new show, would you want to invest in Entertainment Tonight or TMZ? Certainly, TMZ would seem to be a better risk than a show produced using the traditional model.
“We have to change the way things are done. Do we want to disrupt the success of shows like Oprah, Dr. Phil or Wheel of Fortune? No. But TMZ's a great success and it's not expensive.”
Millions Of Hits From His Living Room
To that end, Compton points to two pet Tribune projects: The Bob & Tom Show, a late-night off-radio show that airs on Tribune's WTTV Indianapolis and has risen to become the station's second-highest-rated show among men 25-54; and weekly Web video “Uncle Jay Explains the News.” Compton says the three-minute Webvid averages 7½ million hits per week on YouTube.
“He does it in his living room with a Handycam and Adobe software. It gets more hits than The CW had primetime viewers last night,” Compton says. “The business needs to stop and think and say, 'What can we do together to create better efficiencies?'”
Compton also feels strongly that TV stations need to be airing shows that are exclusive to them and their market: “If you can do it efficiently, there's huge upside there.”
In the short term, stations that find themselves with holes to fill are likely to air more double and triple runs of shows they already own. “Who says you have to program 24 hours a day?” says Bill Butler, VP of programming and promotion for Sinclair Broadcasting. “Why can't you take something you are running at 3 or 4 a.m. and run it when no one is looking in daytime?”
And even though every year sees fewer and fewer first-run programs coming to market, many station groups say they've locked up long-term deals for their most successful shows, many of which they can air in other time periods.
“The shows that are successful are on our schedule for a very long time,” Butler says. “Do we have holes? Yes. Do we have as many holes as we used to? No. Scarcity of programs is nothing to worry about this season.”