NATPE 2009: Warner's Werner Says TV in ‘Revolutionary Period'

Some local stations could go dark in road ahead unless drastic change occurs

NATPE '09: Complete Coverage from B&C
The TV business is "in a revolutionary period" and could see some stations go permanently dark in the face of the current economic crisis, says Warner Bros.' Ken Werner.

Speaking at the National Association of Television Program Executives conference Wednesday afternoon, on the panel discussion "Syndication by the Numbers," moderated by B&C Contributing Editor Paige Albiniak, Werner says markets now served by six, seven or eight stations could find themselves with only three on the air in a few years.

In some cases, "there may be better use of that spectrum," says Werner, president, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution.

Attendees of the NATPE conference for years have gathered with an eye toward finding new ideas for strategizing amid an obviously changing landscape. But the state of the economy and broadcasting business today means quicker, more drastic change is now necessary, the panelists agreed.

"For broadcasters it is a clarion call to put on things that are interesting to see while they still have the strategic advantage," Werner says.

That's of course easier said than done.

"Stations have incredible program obligations for years at license fees meant for another time," says panelist Neal Sabin, executive VP, Weigel Broadcasting Co. "Resources for new program development are tempered by what's available."

Emerson Coleman, VP, programming, Hearst-Argyle Television, says aging legacy shows in syndication will have to be replaced, and the way new syndicated shows are typically introduced to market these days is not cutting it. "The time is going to come when we will not have those key shows," he says.

Coleman says stations need to become involved earlier in the development process than they are now and shows need more often to be done in partnership between stations and studios. "Typically someone comes to the station, they have the concept and they have a list they won't show you of what they expect to get in each market for the license fee and say, ‘You guys should follow along,'" he says. "If we were meeting before that, in the development process or right after development, the conversation might be that their expense is less because we would be a participant in the show."

One way Coleman says he expects new program development to work in the current era is the old-fashioned, local-first model. "We will see [station] groups, especially sizable groups, look to do things locally," he says.

Panelist Sean Compton, senior VP of programming and entertainment for Tribune Broadcasting, offered an example of how that is happening at the moment at his company. He says he viewed a local show over the weekend that could play nationally for the Tribune Co. It's a cooking and movie review show out of Cleveland, on one of the company's former New York Times stations. "I sent it to our GMs and also may consider a weekend clearance on our cable network," he says.

Meantime, panelist Ritch Colbert, principal, Program Partners, announced during the session key clearances for upcoming syndicated talk show Marie, starring Marie Osmond (Related story: Marie Sold in New York, Los Angeles)