With syndication consolidating into a few major vertically integrated companies dominated by studios, the independent syndicator is something of an endangered species. Little syndicators get last shot at time slots and must build businesses by going after areas of television that the major studios are ignoring.
But, by being scrappy, thinking differently, and moving to take advantage of opportunities that the big guys leave behind, a handful of small syndicators are thriving in today's tough environment. They are rolling out new shows this year, and they are keeping their existing shows on the air.
Independent syndicators have some advantages the big studios don't have. They can work closely with stations to develop advertisers and sponsors in local markets. They can produce less expensive shows that don't have to be cleared as widely in order to be profitable. And they can provide a high level of customized service to their customers.
That describes how Byron Allen, chairman and CEO of Entertainment Studios (formerly CF Entertainment), has managed to thrive while other small syndicators have folded in droves. In the past few months, Entertainment Studios has hired a new president of domestic distribution and opened a Chicago sales office. The company also is rolling out three weekly shows: Designers, Fashions and Runways; The Writer's Hotlist; and Travel in Style.
All of Entertainment Studios' shows are designed to appeal to certain advertising segments. One show, Recipe TV, which was just tapped to replace The John Walsh Show
on NBC's San Diego owned-and-operated station, draws in advertisers from the food industry, one of TV's largest advertising segments.
"Our shows are designed to make the TV stations money," Allen says. "When we bring Recipe TV
to the marketplace, we show stations that there's a way for television stations to tap into the multibillion-dollar food industry.
"As broadcast TV continues to fragment," he adds, "broadcasters must get smarter about getting shows that they can make a profit with."
New Line Television President Jim Rosenthal echoes that strategy. "The only way smaller guys like us survive is by going where the big guys aren't. You have to find a niche you can specialize in."
New Line also is rolling out a movie package, called Gold, that includes 15 New Line films. Stations pay cash for the package and have short windows of availability in which to air the movies. New Line Television is also launching The Twilight Zone
in off-net syndication.
The show aired last year in prime time on UPN but was not renewed for another season. New Line is taking it to TV stations on a barter-only basis, and stations can air it as a weekly half-hour or hour. The Twilight Zone
is cleared in 75% of the country.
Litton Entertainment (formerly Litton Syndications and now encompassing Litton Studios, Litton Corp. Direct and Litton Worldwide Distribution) tends to focus on late-night strips.
For this fall, it's offering Hot Topics, a young-skewing newsmagazine show. In partnership with Cox Enterprises, Litton has been beta-testing the show on Cox's WSB-TV Atlanta for the past year. The show has been beating Saturday Night Live
in the market, says Litton President and CEO Dave Morgan, and he expects it to do as well once it rolls out nationally.
"The marketplace is looking for a news reality-based show targeted at young viewers," he says. "A lot of stations are looking at it for late-night Monday through Saturday, and some are looking at it for early fringe and access." He plans to take the show out for sale after NATPE.
Litton also is clearing two one-hour specials for spring and summer called Food and Family. If the show performs well—and it already is cleared in 37% of the country, including four ABC owned stations—Litton hopes to turn it into a weekly half-hour and ultimately a half-hour strip.
October Moon, headed by Chuck Larsen, will roll out That's Funny
from Vin di Bona Productions this fall. The half-hour show consists of video clips, partly from di Bona's extensive America's Funniest Home Videos
library. October Moon also syndicates MTV's Real World
and Road Rules, both from Bunin/Murray.
"We survive by zigging when others zag," Larsen says. "We can pick up specialized kinds of projects, and I think we can market them in a more station-friendly manner than some of the studios can. I'm not saying there's room for a lot of independents, but I think the ones who have survived are filling a need in the marketplace and getting projects on the air that wouldn't be there otherwise."
October Moon is selling That's Funny
on a cash-only basis. "That's not unique to the business, but it's unique to the recent business," Larsen says. "We do things that are station-friendly. This way, they can schedule the show when and where they want, and they can schedule the show however it fits best into their schedule."
DIC Entertainment is less than half-way through its first year of offering three three-hour educational kids' blocks to stations. Besides giving Fox, The WB and UPN stations FCC-required programming, DIC also fills out required paperwork for them, making DIC a one-stop shop for stations.
In return, Nielsen allows DIC to cume its ratings, so the syndicator offers national advertisers kids' numbers that are on par with genre leader ABC/Disney.
"We are providing a unique service to the advertisers that they can't get on Nickelodeon or Disney," says DIC Chairman and CEO Andy Heyward. "We are cleared in 100% of the U.S. TV households. You've got 20% of the country that is disenfranchised because they don't get cable."
Still to come this year on the DIC blocks are the BBC's Ace Lightning
and PBS's Liberty's Kids, which DIC produced.
Western International Syndication isn't bringing any new shows to NATPE, but it has projects in the works, says President and CEO Chris Lancey. The company plans to focus on weekly hours because that's an area where the major syndicators aren't. "In a consolidated marketplace, Western has to identify the spots where the market is really giving us an opportunity, and weekly hours is one of those spots."
Western has two weekly hours on the air: Live in Hollywood
and It's Showtime at the Apollo ... The Best Of. Both shows focus on the African-American audience, an "underserved audience that makes our shows unique and extremely exploitable," Lancey says.