Sales Stall Could Shake Up Syndication Business

Studios may target cable nets for first-run, stations for off-net drama

With TV stations facing perhaps the toughest year in their history, sales of syndicated programs have come to a screeching halt. And that could lead to some new trends in the syndication world.

“Everyone is sitting still,” says one TV sales rep. “It's in no one's interest right now to do a deal. The only way a TV station would do a deal is if it could knock 30% off a show's license fee. Stations don't know if they are going to make their budgets this quarter, much less their budgets five years from now.”

Likewise, syndicators don't want to commit to selling shows to stations at rock-bottom prices, so they are waiting and hoping that things look better in 2010.

Most shows that are going forward this fall—a group led by Sony's Oprah-backed Dr. Oz that also includes Debmar-Mercury's Wendy Williams, Program Partners' Marie Osmond, Warner Bros.' Jeanine Pirro and Twentieth's Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?—were largely cleared before the market “got real ugly,” says one syndicator.

That means many stations need to come up with alternate plans to fill airtime. Many existing shows will now be double- or triple-run. Syndicators also are talking about selling off-net dramas to stations as afternoon strips, residuals permitting, much as NBC Universal has done with Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. No other afternoon off-net deals have been done yet, but among syndicators it's a much-discussed option.

Syndicators also are turning their eyes to cable, the one segment of the TV market that still has money due to its dual revenue streams. “We are looking at selling first-run shows to cable networks,” says one syndicator. “In its early days, cable was not necessarily a profitable entity to sell shows to, but today it's a much more viable business for us. The future for syndicators is going to be new platforms: cable, Internet and mobile.”

Through it all, some of the smaller syndicators are keeping their heads above water in this tough market because they don't need to win big license fees or long-term deals to move product profitably.

“The marketplace is terrible, and the buying patterns have changed,” says Dave Morgan, president and CEO of Litton Entertainment, which has managed to clear The Brian McKnight Show and Street Court and renew Storm Stories in recent weeks. “We were prepared for the change. We created shows we could offer on barter. We created shows that were different yet would be accepted instantly by audiences.”

Morgan predicts that all of syndication will do business this way sooner rather than later: “In 10 years, we'll look back and say this year marked the pinnacle of change for the industry.”

Echoes one TV sales rep: “This economy has hit the reset button for us.”