To many who made the trip to sunny Miami, this year’s NATPE conference seemed bereft of the big stars.
It was nothing like last year, with the debut of NBCUniversal’s Harry, starring Harry Connick Jr., or even 2014, with NBCUniversal’s Meredith Vieira. Or 2012, with Disney-ABC’s Katie.
Indeed, with no new first-run offerings coming from major studios for next fall and a schedule clogged with aging big-name shows, many station groups these days are creating their own programming options.
Two station groups announced new shows at this year’s NATPE event: Tegna is shopping the to-be-renamed BOLD (Broadcast Online Live Daily), which will be broadcast in a continuous, live online newsfeed that affiliates can tap into every daytime half-hour on the half-hour; and E. W. Scripps is offering a new lifestyle talk show starring American Idol’s Kellie Pickler and former WNBC New York features reporter Ben Aaron. Those two shows join two others—Page Six TV and Top 30—that emerged after Fox Television Stations tested seven shows last summer.
Page Six TV is currently sold in more than 80% of markets, including the Fox-owned stations and in 160 additional markets, while Top 30 is cleared in more than 60% of the country.
Station groups are finding they have no choice but to produce their own fare to fill airtime, as studios retreat from syndication.
Syndication is increasingly a challenging business. It’s no longer the only alternative to network first-run shows.
Options for TV viewers at home during the day—stay-at-home moms, midnight-shifters, telecommuters taking a break and others—are no longer limited to talk shows and soap operas. Even top talent gets lost in the crowd of A-listers, and properly launching a show requires patience, time and money—all of which are in short supply.
If studios do find a hit, veteran shows are renewed for years. That means some time periods aren’t available, especially in the country’s biggest markets. When there’s no path to national clearance, the major studios tend to sit out.
Station groups are stunned at the lack of product. “A lot of people [at NATPE] were still a little bit in shock,” Emerson Coleman, VP of programming at Hearst Television, said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a season like this or a NATPE like that. In an environment where there is very little, [Page Six TV] was the only offering from one of the major groups. I’m not sure we’ve seen that happen before.”
Several station groups are preparing to operate as if this slow syndication pipeline is the new normal, but studio suppliers said they’ll be back in the market when opportunity presents itself.
“We’re in a moment of transition and constipation,” said a studio executive who spoke on background. “Incumbent shows continue to be on the air, and stations aren’t willing to take them off. Distributors continue to supply them because they make a certain amount of money.”
The time is also coming when several veteran shows—such as Judge Judy, Maury and Jerry Springer—will end, leaving time periods that need to be filled and creating opportunity. The hosts of all of those shows are in their 70s and 80s and nearing retirement.
Still, recent history demonstrates how difficult it is to launch a new show to any sort of ratings success. Oprah Winfrey’s 2011 retirement left a hole in syndication that still hasn’t been filled; that’s also likely to be the case when Judge Judy Sheindlin finally hangs it up.
Stations still need and want to work with studios because developing and producing programming is risky and expensive. It works best when that risk can be spread across partners.
And while station groups have produced many shows over the past several years, none of them have emerged as a true hit. Among them: Meredith’s Better, which ran for eight seasons; E.W. Scripps’ Let’s Ask America, a game show that ran for a couple of seasons; Raycom’s America Now, which aired for four seasons; Scripps’ The List, which is currently airing in 45 markets; Tribune’s The Bill Cunningham Show, which wrapped its five-year run at the end of last season; Tegna’s T.D. Jakes, currently airing in about half the country; Media General and Fox’s Hollywood Today Live, expected to wrap its run on select stations after this season; and RightThisMinute from Scripps, Cox Media Group and Raycom, which arguably has been the most successful of these efforts. Right-This-Minute moved to the ABC-owned stations this season and has been renewed for next season, the show’s seventh.
Many of these shows were produced in partnerships between station groups, an idea that everyone agrees is good, but that can be hard to execute behind the scenes because station groups have different needs and different agendas.
“My general feeling is that we’re in a period of great transition in our business and if we don’t circle our wagons and build upon our strengths collectively, we’re in for a world of hurt,” Fox Television Stations executive VP of programming and development Stephen Brown said. “We have to find ways to work together that still allow us to maintain competitive advantages. Some groups are easier to work with than others, but many are open to it. I think you are going to see that more and more. We certainly want that.” Said Coleman: “Everybody has to be incentivized and we have to figure this out. It’s a pretty fundamental change to what we’ve grown used to.”
Last summer, the Fox group tested seven shows on its stations over about two months. Those shows included two that are being rolled out nationally—Page Six TV, produced by Endemol Shine North America; and Top 30, being produced in-house by Twentieth Television. Another of those—The Jason Show, a local production from KMSP Minneapolis—is expected to air on certain Fox-owned stations in even more markets this summer. The group also is looking at other locally produced shows to take more broadly, such as daytime talk show The Q, starring Good Day correspondent Quincy Harris, on WTXF Philadelphia.
This summer, Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming at Fox Television Stations, said he’d like to test even more shows, especially because there will be no Olympics in August to draw attention away from regular programming.
“However wide the distribution of these shows ends up being, the fact that we end up with functional series is the value,” Cicha said. Because the shows tested so well for Fox this summer, there are two more shows in a market that’s sorely hurting for new product.
Tegna, which unlike Fox isn’t under a corporate umbrella that includes a studio, also is getting heavily into the programming development and testing business. It aired a talk show starring Bishop T.D. Jakes for one season, and will replace it next season with BOLD, though that name will change. Tegna also is testing new shows in local markets.
At WWL New Orleans, Tegna is developing singing competition program Sing Like a Star, while at WXIA Atlanta, it’s testing Sister Circle, a talk show targeted at African-Americans. Tegna also has plans to do three more “live, local” pilots for 2018.
“We did five local pilots, and then did research on those pilots,” Tegna senior VP of development Bob Sullivan said. “We’re willing to invest in the development process beyond just sketching it out on the back of a napkin. If the right idea comes along, we have enough real estate.”
Finally, Scripps is offering a new lifestyle talk show starring American Idol’s Kellie Pickler and WNBC’s Ben Aaron. The show will be executive produced by country music star Faith Hill and shot in a giant barn on her property in Nashville in front of a studio audience. Targeted at Middle America, the yet-to-be-titled series will focus on lifestyle topics, such as cooking, interior design and home improvement.
“Kellie and Ben have found a real connection around their shared values,” Brian Lawlor, senior VP of broadcast at E.W. Scripps, said. “Ben is an NYC kid, while Kellie grew up in a small town in North Carolina. That big-city, small-town thing was fun to explore.”
That show was announced at NATPE, but no clearances or partnerships have yet been announced, so whether or not it will go forward for 2017 is unclear.
Pros and Cons of Testing
While most on the station side hail the use of tests, some studio executives said that one reason they aren’t coming out with new offerings is because locally-produced programs are taking up time slots that could house studio-produced shows.
“Part of the reason that the studios aren’t offering much is because stations are doing it for themselves,” one station executive said. “Why would CBS or anyone else kill themselves to do a show when Tegna says, ‘We have BOLD?’ ”
Studios face a fragmented TV environment in addition to a lack of time periods, and profits are elusive. That fragmentation is most apparent in daytime, a daypart in which shows air Monday through Friday and, for the most part, are either watched live or not at all.
A studio-produced talk show such as Harry or Sony Pictures Television’s Queen Latifah costs about $35 million to $40 million annually to produce. Harry averages a 1.2 live-plus-same-day household rating season-todate, which is also what Latifah—which was canceled in March 2015 and replaced by CBS Television Distribution’s Hot Bench on the CBS-owned stations—averaged.
Simply put, shows at that price point in that ratings range aren’t profitable. Booking a big star to do a show does not guarantee a hit, as the past several years have proven out. Taking that risk is becoming less and less easy for the studios to justify.
Meanwhile, a show like Hollywood Today Live, co-produced by Media General (now Nexstar) and Fox, costs about $6 million a year to produce. While that show is unlikely to continue after this season and did not manage to grow into a ratings success, its budget is far easier to swallow.
“As a model, I think Hollywood Today Live works,” Brown said. “As a model of station groups working together to build and try something, I think it works.”
With all that in mind, it’s understandable that studios are choosing not to launch new, expensive shows into syndication as local broadcasters search high and low to figure out how best to program their TV stations.
Local or Bust
In many cases, stations are producing shows that are hyper-focused on the local market but that groups have no intention of taking national. There are many examples of this, but Nexstar’s KLAS Las Vegas on Feb. 6 launched a new one, Las Vegas Now, a panel talk and lifestyle show that will air at 4 p.m., leading into its 5 p.m. local news.
“If you have an opening or if something’s going away and you need to fill that time slot, you need to find something that fits your market,” KLAS VP and general manager Lisa Howfield said. “It’s about following through on what you stand for and what your philosophy is. The Nexstar philosophy is to be as local as possible.”
Meredith VP of news and marketing Patrick McCreery said, “I do think the key is maintaining the local connection to the marketplace.” His station group produced Better for eight years. “There’s a local connection piece that’s lost when a show goes into national syndication.”
Meredith, which still produces local shows such as More and More Access in individual markets, is committed to its highly local approach, McCreery noted. “We probably won’t be going back down the national syndication road any time soon,” he said.
Maintaining a healthy TV station has always been about airing a mix of programming, whether it’s local or national, news or entertainment.
“A big show needs to have great clearances and strong stations,” Fox’s Brown said. “There’s no room in the market right now, and there’s less appetite because the last five or six have not done well, so the studios are gun shy. But as an industry, we’ve got to do things differently. We’ve got to think about new innovative formats and new ways to entertain.”
A New Day for Stations
As consolidation in the TV-station business continues, local and regional advertisers rely heavily on local stations for advertising. Station groups have spent the last few years consolidating, and Fox, Sinclair and CBS are expected to get even bigger.
“That will give stations more heft in terms of being able to take some risk,” Warner Bros.’ Werner said. “When you have that kind of consolidation, it’s helpful to the underlying economics.
“From where we sit today, things are looking bright for local television stations,” he added. “Nationally, there’s never been more competition for eyeballs. For local stations, it’s all about local. From content to ad revenue to retrans fees, local stations are in a relatively protected and expanding space.”