NATPE 2011: Tribune's Compton Says It's Time to ‘Get Over' Fear of Firstrun Syndication

Panel of syndication experts see cash in the market as industry looks to fill void of exiting Regis, ‘Oprah'
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Tribune Co.'s President of Programming Sean Compton
talked up the possibility of scripted syndicated fare becoming vogue
again--and stations increasingly ponying up cash for programs that command
it--during a panel moderated by B&C's Paige Albiniak at NATPE
in Miami Jan. 24.

Tribune programs a steady lineup of off-net sitcoms--including Two And A Half Men, which it has locked up through 2021--and questioned why the station community has let the fear of risk get
the best of them while original sitcoms like those created by Tyler Perry are
making their way to successful runs on cable.

"Why are those going to cable?" Compton said,
recalling the days that original syndicated sitcom Mama's Family
was a hit. "We've got to get over that."

Tribune can be one of the groups that will make big swings
like syndicated, scripted originals work, he says.

While Compton quipped "I just pray to God that Charlie
Sheen lives for another 35 episodes" he also addressed the serious
business question of having a number of off-net sitcom deals that expire in
two-to-three years: "We're focusing our efforts toward, 'What are we
going to do in 2014? Do we renew sitcoms? Do we do firstrun scripted? Do you do
shows like Excused?' In two-to-three years we're going to have a lot
of holes that need to be filled. It just depends on the need for the
station."

The expiration of many of Compton's current deals
comes as the off-net sitcom pipeline looks to be entering a dry period; and, as
always, he's looking for big performers no matter the genre. "I
would rather take the worst sales person to sell a four rating than the best
salesperson to sell a one," he said.

Stations increasingly are willing to pay syndicators, but only for the right shows, like the elusive "4-rated" shows.
"It's slowly coming back," said panelist John Nogawski,
president, CBS Television Distribution. "It's not flowing out of
pocketbooks but it's coming out of pocketbooks. If shows start showing
success, they don't mind paying."

Noting that CTD's Excused and Warner Bros.'
Anderson Cooper vehicle are getting cash as part of their deals, Nogawski
agreed with panelist Mort Marcus, co-president, Debmar-Mercury LLC, that the
outlook for broadcasters' health is good and portends for more cash in
the market.

Marcus said shows command compensation appropriate to their
risk level. Among his reasons he is optimistic about broadcasting: increasing
retransmission consent payments; the competitive advantage local stations stand
to gain with the drop off of newspaper ad sales and the lowered cable
penetration rate; the Supreme Court decision to relax media ownership rules;
and the advent of new kinds of vehicles the automakers need to market.

Nogawski underlined the importance for broadcasters to take
the next step and actually invest their potential infusions of cash into
programming: "We've been hooked on the heroin of barter and need to
get away from that mentality because it is driving budgets so low, we
can't produce what need to," he said. "There was an over-abundance
of spots available so it was easier for them (stations) to give up spots than
give us cash."

Compton concurred that mutual need for syndicators and
stations to both be healthy, with syndicators needing the budgets to put up the
high-level of quality that will break through with viewers. But the syndicators
also "need broadcasters to be healthy," he said.

"We all have margins," Compton said. "I
have to report to a boss who has a certain margin."

But Compton also was careful not to downplay the value of broadcast
barter. "Broadcasters' barter is worth a lot of money, it's
worth more than cable. So broadcast is not dead," he said.

While broadcast may not be dead, the panel, which also
included independent producer Scott Sternberg, president, Scott Sternberg
Prods., agreed the industry needs to get a new hit on the air soon.

The quickly approaching void this year -- as a trio of Entertainment
Tonight
's Mary Hart, Live!'s Regis Philbin and Oprah
Winfrey are all set to retire from the sector after decades on the air -
will be vast.

The panel had at least as many different theories on how to
find the next Oprah-sized hit as there were people sitting on the stage.
Marcus called for 20-25 on-air test runs annually. Nogawski backs a different
model, sticking to tests of talent and concepts within existing established
shows and not launching a show unless it starts from a profit position.
Sternberg emphasized the importance of utilizing multiple distribution
platforms in development and production. And Compton admitted there needed to
be more risk-taking on the station level, where a lot of "goof
proof" deals are done.

But they all agreed they wouldn't be in this business
if they didn't believe the next big thing is out there somewhere. Said
Nogawski: "We can't stop looking."

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