Open for Business A Welcome Sign

The syndication boom is not just about Oprah leaving, with ABC and NBC waking up and Tribune eventually emerging from bankruptcy
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After years of scant offerings, syndication is the most dynamic it’s been in years, with as many as seven talk shows in development. Why the sudden boom? It’s about addition and subtraction: The addition of ABC and NBC becoming active after years of relative dormancy, and the subtraction of ‘Oprah’, several soap operas and, probably at some point soon, the removal of the bankruptcy tag from Tribune.

“I think it’s a pretty healthy environment to be out there selling shows,” says Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth Television. “The networks are getting out of the traditional daytime business of soap operas, and the networks also have opened up some daytime time periods. With the soaps going away, there’s a revenue pool out there from advertisers that is now trickling down into daytime syndication. That’s all good for us.”

It’s not just soaps that have gone away, of course. Oprah Winfrey finally wrapped her show in May, leaving a welldocumented void in daytime and lots of viewers in play.

“The playing field has been leveled,” says John Nogawski, president of CBS Domestic Television. “You don’t have that one show like Oprah that always was the woman at home’s first choice, so now you have a whole lot more surfing going on. People are looking around to see who they want to devote their time to. As those decisions get made, we’ll see who the lucky winner is.”

Those changes have forced the ABC-owned stations— which for some 25 years were television’s most stable—to rearrange their entire daytime line-up. ABC is replacing two soaps—All My Children and One Life to Live—with two new panel talk shows, The Chew and The Revolution.

ABC also gave back an hour of time to affiliates to accommodate its fall 2012 talk show starring Katie Couric, which Disney-ABC Television announced in June. While most ABC affiliates in top markets are expected to sign that hour over to Katie, syndicators say it represents a new sales opportunity in many markets.

“A time period that didn’t even exist a year ago now exists. That’s great for us,” says Nogawski.

While Couric’s deal was being hammered out last spring, Meidel and Twentieth announced that they would be bringing Ricki Lake, who spent 11 years on the air, back to daytime. Twentieth is showing stations a full pilot that includes five segments shot in front of a live studio audience with Brad Bessey, formerly of Entertainment Tonight and The Talk, executive producing.

Ricki Lake
was one of the first talkers to be announced as available for fall 2012, but the field has grown and deepened over the past few months.

A few weeks after Disney-ABC announced Katie, CTD said it was developing a talker with Survivor host Jeff Probst. “I can’t think of better experience than spending the past 11 or 12 years watching people in a setting where you can see every emotion that can possibly be fathomed come to light,” says Nogawski. “[Probst has] become this incredible listener, who takes what he learns from those interactions and turns that into incredible storytelling.”

In June, Warner Bros. shot a pilot with Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel. NBCUniversal, recently acquired by Comcast, is working on talk shows with three hosts: Steve Harvey, to be produced by Endemol; Trisha Goddard, a British talk host who has appeared several times on Maury; and Jenny McCarthy, who formerly had a talent deal with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. It’s also likely that Sony, which distributes the Oprah spin-offs Dr. Oz and Nate Berkus, will have a daytime offering, sources say.

“You are seeing more activity than in the past few years, because the economy is better, even though it didn’t seem that way at the end of the summer,” says Barry Wallach, president of NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution. “There are lots of green lights " ashing.”

Most syndication executives expect there to be three or four daytime slots available next year, which means that not all of the shows in development will find homes. “Sure, more of these things are being announced, but how many of them are real is the question,” says one station executive.

The Katie Factor

Katie is the one sure thing to launch for fall 2012, with 3 p.m. slots locked up on eight ABC-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Raleigh/Durham (N.C.) and Fresno (Calif.), representing nearly 23% of the nation’s TV households. ABC af! liates can decide what they want to air in the new hour, but the major ABC af! liate groups—Hearst and Cox, in particular—are expected to follow the network lead.

That said, selling Katie won’t be without its challenges. According to sources, Disney-ABC is out in the market with the show asking $50,000 per week in top- 10 markets Dallas and Atlanta and $25,000 per week in mid-tier markets such as Indianapolis and Cincinnati for two-year deals.

“They are setting the bar very high,” says one source.

But the negotiations are just beginning, both in and out of the press. Station sources predictably say they don’t expect Disney-ABC to be able to sell the show at those prices, however. “There’s a likelihood that everyone passes at that initial ask,” says one station executive.

By comparison, Oprah at its peak sold in Los Angeles alone for approximately $250,000 per week. But in recent years, as the television audience has fragmented and the economy has tanked, prices have plunged. When Fox bought the successful Dr. Oz in 2008, the pricing was in the range of $250,000 per week for the entire group. Last year, Fox renewed Oz for three more years at higher prices, but the days of Oprah-sized license fees are long gone.

Wherever Katie’s pricing lands, the show will be on the air next fall. It will then be up to Couric and her Jeff Zucker-led production team to keep it there.

NBC Back in Business

While syndicators are eyeing the new ABC slot, NBC has at least two time slots to fill in 2012. The 10-station group is back in business, both from a production and an acquisition standpoint, after disappearing in recent years. Comcast completed its acquisition of NBCUniversal last January, and right away targeted its TV stations for a fix.

“We want to grow our audience and improve our ratings in our daytime lineup,” says Valari Staab, president of NBC Owned Television Stations, who came on board last spring from Disney-ABC’s KGO San Francisco. “Daytime is a key priority, given it’s the lead-in to our evening newscasts. We’re really taking a hard look at everything to see what works and what needs to improve. We have 10 stations in 10 unique markets, so we can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach—we’re highly focused on what works best in each of our 10 markets.”

Over the past few years, NBCU has filled its daytime with economically produced shows such as Daily Connection, LXTV and In the Loop With iVillage, which takes existing NBCU content and repurposes it into new shows. NBC also has filled holes with shows that it can acquire without much investment, such as corporate cousin Bravo’s off-network Real Housewives or Entertainment Studios’ We the People With Gloria Allred. For the most part, all those programming decisions have done is degrade daytime ratings on the NBC stations.

That’s why NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution is developing talk shows with Steve Harvey, Trish Goddard and Jenny McCarthy—there’s plenty of room on the NBC stations for new programming.

“NBC could do even three hours, but they won’t, because stations in the rest of the country can’t support that many shows,” says one syndicator. “That’s NBC’s problem.”

But the marketplace thinks NBC is set to jump back in as a buyer—from anywhere.

“Don’t make the assumption that because NBC is going more into the production business that they’ll only buy from themselves,” says another syndication exec. “They will still go for the best show.”

Of the three NBCU shows, most industry observers say Steve Harvey’s is the most likely to go forward. Goddard could make it to air because of her Maury cred, and because she ! ts into lineups that are already full of conflict talkers—namely, Maury, Jerry Springer and Steve Wilkos. Jenny McCarthy seems the least likely of the three to get on the air. Either way, putting NBC and ABC back into play is rejuvenating the syndication marketplace. “These are two big players who haven’t really done anything for years. Now both are back in the game,” says Ira Bernstein, Debmar-Mercury copresident.

Eyeing Vulnerable Time Slots

While it is difficult to determine what time slots will be available next year, there are some to keep an eye on. While rival syndicators say Sony’s Nate Berkus could be on the bubble to return next year, Sony execs maintain that while they would like to see numbers improve (usually around a 1.0 in households), Nate could continue at these levels. The show has a three-year deal with the NBC stations—it just entered its second season— but the rest of the country has only signed it for two seasons. Sony is hoping new executive producer Corin Nelson can help improve the show’s ratings.

Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams—which consistently ranks last among talk shows, although it turns in a decent performance in New York—is in a similar situation. CTD replaced Nancy Grace with Judge Jackie Glass on Swift Justice, but the survival of that show— sold last year in two-year deals—also is in question.

Syndicators also are eyeing NBCU’s Access Hollywood Live, which airs on the NBC-owned stations and some Fox-owned stations, but isn’t nationally cleared.

Finally, the new shows—Anderson, We the People with Gloria Allred, Debmar-Mercury’s Jeremy Kyle and Tribune’s Bill Cunningham—are still wild cards. All of the shows boast top-market clearances, so people are keeping a close eye on their ratings. In particular, syndicators say that what Tribune decides to do with even an hour of daytime has national ramifications.

“When Tribune buys something, it’s very displacing,” says one syndicator. “If Tribune decided to buy Jeff Probst, for example, that means Probst is launching.”

And after several years of ! nancial dif! culties and pending lawsuits, Tribune finally is expected to exit bankruptcy within the next six months. When that happens, Tribune is likely to step up its game both as a producer and a buyer. Like Tribune, Fox has a great deal of influence over what gets cleared across the country, and all the more now that Fox has improved its stations with more news and informational programming.

“The Fox-owned stations look much more like traditional affiliates,” says one syndicator. “That’s been a big part of their retransmission-content strategy. They are working to put on the best syndicated shows and the best newscasts, so that they can then go out there and ask for big retrans cash.”

Meanwhile, there’s only one traditional station group that isn’t really in play for 2012: CBS, which, with shows such as Dr. Phil and Judge Judy renewed out for years, has few available slots.

Expensive Is the New Cheap

The possibility of trading quality for retrans money partly explains syndication’s return to something syndicators once did without thinking: spending money.

“Viewers have been blessed with big television shows with big budgets,” says Meidel. “It started with Oprah and today you see it in Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Ellen. These are expensive television shows, and viewers embrace them. There are no shortcuts. If you put something cheap on the air, the viewer can smell it.”

This season, that’s particularly true with Anderson, which by all reports and appearance is costly. It’s shot at the Time Warner Center in central Manhattan, and the sleek CNN anchor greets audiences in front of a wall of windows overlooking Columbus Circle. Anderson premiered to low ratings, but that’s due more to weak clearances in top markets than a lack of spending on Warner Bros.’ part.

Girlfriend TV

Anderson Cooper has been clear that he’d like to be the new Oprah, but his gender may be working against him. According to some syndicators, what’s needed on daytime TV is a “girlfriend,” which was the key to Oprah’s success. Disney-ABC hopes that will be Katie. Warner’s is placing that bet on Bethenny, while Twentieth hopes TV stations turn to Ricki.

“All of my research indicates that what we need next is a ‘girlfriend’ show,” says Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. “We need a woman who talks to women in a way that they ! nd engaging and understanding. It’s companionship television. That’s what’s missing now. That’s where the real opportunity is.”

None of these opportunities will matter if syndicators can’t find shows that break out. While they are all fiercely competitive with each other, syndicators agree on one thing: they want shows to work.

Says Meidel: “Shows that work provide more leadins. They encourage station group owners to take more risks. This is a business of risk, but it’s also one of reward. That’s what it’s all about.”

E-mailcomments to palbiniak@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

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