NATPE 2015: Station Groups Find Comfort in Programming Partnerships

The long-term deal is becoming an endangered species
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TV station groups are increasingly producing their own programming in order to have greater control over their schedules and inventory, said station-based programmers at NATPE in Miami on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s not exclusively about owning a piece of content for the sake of a back end that may or may not come down the road, it’s more about having control and taking back control. For our groups, it’s more about having a say at the table,” said Sean Compton, Tribune Media president of strategic programming and acquisitions.

Owning a piece of syndicated shows means that stations have more of a say in whether they get to keep a show on their air in success. Otherwise, the show frequently goes to the highest bidder in the market. Over the past couple of years, Warner Bros.’ Ellen, for example, has jumped to higher-paying stations in some markets.

“We are trying more than ever before to control our time periods,” said Robert Sullivan, Scripps Media VP of programming. “We were handing those time periods over [to the studios] and saying program them for us.”

All three groups included on the panel – Scripps, Tribune and Raycom, represented by Ken Reiner, VP of programming – have increasingly worked with syndicators and other station groups in partnership over the past few years. And all three say they expect that to continue to be the case.

Moreover, station groups are getting less and less willing to buy first-run shows in two-year deals or make long-term commitments to off-net sitcoms.

“We’re never doing two-year deals again. Never. Katie killed our daytime time periods,” said Sullivan.

“We have flexibility with the content we’ve acquired at this point. We’ve strategically crafted our deals,” said Reiner.

Part of the reason Tribune has backed away from buying off-network sitcoms in access – even considering the huge success it had with Warner Bros.’ Two and a Half Men — was because of their high prices and perhaps more importantly, the required long-term commitment, which can become a financial burden if shows run too long with declining ratings.

“We were a big buyer of sitcoms,” said Compton. “For the most part, deals were four or seven years. A sitcom that came out a couple of years ago had the potential of being 11 years. I freaked out about that. I want to be in this business for a while and I don’t want to be living with that down the road.

“It’s not just about owning a piece of the show, it’s not just about controlling your destiny, a lot of it has to do with having the freedom to program your stations.”

“The culture has changed, industry has changed and we have to pivot,” said Sullivan. “We didn’t get into it to have more leverage over the studios. We want to partner with the studios when the content is right at the right price. Studios are approaching us and saying let’s approach it from a multi-partnership standpoint – that’s glaciers moving in terms of how the studios have always run.”

In fact, all three station group programmers said they continue to work closely with many studios. Sullivan partnered with Warner Bros.’ on game show Let’s Ask America, while Tribune worked with Debmar-Mercury on Celebrity Name Game and will partner with Warner Bros. to launch Crime Watch Daily next year. Raycom was one of the first purveyors of the partnership model when it launched America Now, now airing only on Raycom stations in best-of episodes, four years ago.

“We’ve got the storefronts,” said Sullivan. “We were devaluing our storefronts and paying other people to put product in our store windows.”

Asked whether he would again pull CBS Television Distribution’s top-rated game shows, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, and replace them with homegrown shows in access, Sullivan said yes, even though the new shows are unlikely to turn in a similar ratings performance.

While household ratings for those game shows are huge, “the margin on those shows isn’t very good,” said Sullivan, “and the audience in those time periods is not the audience our advertisers necessarily want.”

Sullivan did admit it was hard to make that change in access, where viewership is significantly higher than it is in daytime. “I do wish I could have put my toe in the water and maybe just done something in daytime,” he said.

And station marketers miss the greater number of eyeballs that higher-rated shows bring: “You do walk away from a [bigger] marketing platform for your primetime and your late news,” Sullivan said.

Still, for station groups, the measure of success is not difficult to determine, no matter how a show might get there: “I consider a show a success if you are making money,” said Compton. 

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