Syndication Keeping Tribune in the Game

Company hoping CW will broaden out programming to help primetime

Syndicated programming and expanded local newscasts are the foundation on which the 23 Tribune stations are working to build strong businesses in its 19 markets. But for the 13 stations that air buzz-worthy but youth-targeted CW shows in primetime, a disconnect remains between that daypart and the rest of the lineup.

Tribune-owned stations generally air a mix of locally branded newscasts, which have been expanded in many markets over the past two years; syndicated programming such as Maury, Jerry Springer, Steve Wilkos, Judge Mathis and People’s Court; and off-net sitcoms in access and late fringe. All perform best among adults 25-54.

And then there’s primetime. While The CW has built a steady lineup of trend-setting shows, CW executives are clear that they target women 18-34, a group that’s hard to reach via broadcast TV and often prefers to watch via iPhones or TiVo.

“Locally, it’s hard to translate The CW’s ratings into real revenue because 80%-85% of the buys that come up are targeted at adults 25-54,” says Jerry Martin, general manager of Tribune’s WXIN/WTTV Indianapolis.

And that disconnect is felt at many of Tribune’s stations, say company executives. “Part of the problem is that our primetime is trying to be hipper than our TV stations,” says one Tribune insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the exec’s business relationship with The CW. “Our stations are programmed very much like independents all day long, and then our primetime shows are too hip for the room. A big chunk of your revenue should be coming from primetime. If we had prime fixed, or at least working somewhat, we’d be so much better off.”

Tribune execs cite, for example, the inability of The CW to hold the audience that flocks to reruns of Two and a Half Men. “With that [show], we hand primetime a home run,” says the Tribune insider. “All the players have to do is run around the bases, and they are tripping over second every time.”

That’s truer in some markets than in others, but Warner Bros.’ Two and a Half Men has been a whopper for Tribune. Across its stations, Men averaged a 3.8 live-plus-same-day household rating, up 6% versus last year. In adults 25-54, Men beats its nearest competitor, The Simpsons, by almost 2-1.

And on CW outlet WTTV in February, Men did a 6.6 household rating/11 share at 7 p.m. and a 7.4/12 share at 7:30 p.m. That leads into The CW’s primetime, which averaged a 1.6 live-plus-same-day household rating in the November 2009 sweeps. (The CW’s primetime programs were in repeats during February due to the Olympics, dropping the network’s ratings.)

While Tribune longs for better primetime prospects, it has no intention of ending its relationship with The CW, with whom it’s contracted for the next six years. Tribune executives say they wish The CW would develop shows with an eye to a broader audience, something CW execs say they are doing with their current development slate. That includes shows such as a remake of La Femme Nikita, a new project from Gilmore Girls creators Dan Palladino and Amy Sherman- Palladino, and a drama set at Harvard Medical School executive-produced by Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere.

“The CW enjoys a strong working relationship with our partners at Tribune,” said a CW spokesman in a statement. “We are both constantly looking for opportunities to build our businesses together.”

Meanwhile, Tribune’s trio of core daytime shows—NBC Universal’s Maury, Jerry Springer and Steve Wilkos—are all up significantly year-to-year among households, women 18-49 and women 25-54, explaining why Tribune in November renewed them for two years. Maury, the highest-rated of the three, is up 14% in households, 20% among women 18-49 and 22% among women 25-54.

In daytime, Tribune’s strategy is to “keep programming formats and not change programming dramatically so viewers know where to find shows,” says WXIN/WTTV’s Martin.

Even if the Tribune stations were firing on all cylinders, they still would have the overwhelming problem of the $13 billion of debt taken on by the company in its 2007 leveraged buyout.

“The CW is a negative for Tribune, not a positive,” says one broadcast analyst who follows Tribune closely. “But the bottom line is that Tribune has so much debt that they will have to restructure and make some sort of trade of debt for equity. And the television stations cannot perform so well that they can make up for the newspapers, which are dying on [Tribune].”

“They certainly are being a lot leaner and tougher than they were before,” the analyst continues. “The problem is that the mountain is just too high. The debt is crushing. They are not going to emerge without a significant restructuring.”