When the Syndicated Network Television Association (SNTA) decided last December to scrap Syndication Day, its multi-city pre-upfront conference that had served to kick off ad negotiations, the trade group had already weathered some hard times as the sheer number of syndicators shrank.
SNTA's ranks had dwindled to just six members—Buena Vista Television Advertising Sales, King World Media Sales, CBS Paramount Advertiser Services, Twentieth Television, NBC Universal Television Distribution and Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution—after Tribune Entertainment ditched the group to work on its own, much as Sony Pictures Television has done.
And syndicators and advertisers were unsure whether SNTA President Mitch Burg would continue with the group. Perhaps most troubling, ad spending in last year's upfront barely budged 3% from a year earlier.
But Burg has signed a new contract, and as syndication heads into the upfront, the group has a new approach.
Though conceding that Syndication Day was a popular event among syndicators and buyers, Burg says SNTA's members, several of whom complained that the crush of competing advertisers stifled conversations, felt they would be better served in more-intimate settings.
“People want to spend more time talking about themselves, rather than having syndicators talk about us,” he says. This year, SNTA is pushing “extended conversations” and providing the ammo.
“The thought is,” Burg continues, “that we would be better off having one-on-one conversations about what we can do for a specific client, rather than doing an overview day.”
So SNTA has become a helper.
Michael Teicher, executive VP of sales for Warner Bros. Domestic Syndication, explains further: “I liken the SNTA's role as the door opener and conversation starter. Then, it's up to the members to do what they do best.”
Still, there are rough patches. Syndication is struggling on a number of fronts. While overall ratings are slightly up, audiences for a few key shows like Wheel of Fortune and even The Oprah Winfrey Show have eroded slightly this year, and the new programs that have been renewed, like Martha, have tepid ratings.
SNTA is pushing syndication's comparative lack of advertising clutter. A new report from media buying shop MindShare found that the major broadcast networks and several cable networks are loaded with roughly 15 minutes of commercials each hour in prime time.
By contrast, Burg estimates, one-third of syndication's commercial pods run less than 90 seconds, and the average ad break has dipped 5% in the past year, to 2 minutes, 11 seconds. He adds that this relative sparseness is already being addressed in one-on-one pre-upfront meetings with advertisers.
“The No. 1 issue people are talking about is clutter,” he says. “We've been doing a lot of work in that area, and we're sharing it with agencies and clients. That's an area where we have a real advantage.”
Media buyers have complained for years that cost-per-thousand-viewers (CPM) estimates for syndicated spots have been high. Several agencies last year held out for modest rate hikes rather than paying robust increases that syndicators had been asking for, a strategy some media buyers say they will utilize again this year.
Also, the field of potential venues for syndicated programming shrank when News Corp. decided to cobble together My Network TV from its stations left behind by the UPN-WB merger.
Moreover, year-end 2005 data from the major ad-tracking firms confirm that advertisers are quickly shifting money from traditional media to alternative outlets, like the Internet and Spanish-language TV, and exploring emerging platforms like video-on-demand.
New shows, new buzz
Burg says SNTA is ready to tackle these challenges. He points to solid ratings for some long-running syndicated programs like Inside Edition and notes that upcoming shows are, for the first time in a few years, creating a buzz with advertisers and viewers alike, even before they debut.
“From our members, we have four significant first-run strips coming out next season, which includes Rachael Ray, who was the toast of NATPE,” says Burg. “Megan Mullally will be doing a new show with NBC. Keith Ablow will be doing a show for Warner Bros. There is Cristina's Court from Twentieth. And coming off the nets is According to Jim and Scrubs, which I think might be a stealth program. And there is CSI: Miami and Without a Trace.”
Burg also points to new ventures that he hopes will spark advertiser interest. For instance, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, among other syndicated programs, will be offered in high-definition this fall, and entertainment newsmagazines have begun putting content on new platforms, such as Entertainment Tonight on Verizon's VCast cellphone service.
“By providing these platforms, we are not only reaching younger viewers, but we are also stimulating viewership,” says Burg. “No matter the platform, syndication has taken the lead. We're not only in broadcast. We're on cable, we're on Verizon, and we're on broadband.”