The revelation that two of the nation's largest TV networks would merge into a single force left a giant prime time void that syndicators scrambled to fill. The news turned this year's NATPE conference into the most memorable since the 1991 start of the first Persian Gulf War, when general managers with news operations fled the convention in droves.
This time, they stuck around amid the biggest realignment of the TV industry since Fox's 1994 acquisition of the New World stations.
After struggling for years, both big and small sales distributors smelled higher license fees and bigger national barter ad revenue with more prime time clearances. In Las Vegas, where all things seem possible, demand for their product soared instantly.
But the distributors' initial euphoria soon wore off. Many realized that they were “just wasting brain cells,” as one syndication executive put it, trying to make any concrete programming deals now until they knew the “last man standing” in each market. Some even had to turn away non-UPN and WB affiliates knocking on their doors to lock up new programming now before bidding wars begin.
The focus at the new-media–leaning programming convention suddenly shifted from tech talks in panel sessions to a subject many thought was passé: the power of traditional, over-the-air broadcasting. The news sent syndicators into an opening-day frenzy.
“After the CW announcement, people's heads would explode if we talked about iPod windows,” says Sony Pictures Television Domestic Distribution President John Weiser.
Expanded market for movies
Conversations abruptly turned from new media formats to reviving The Million Dollar Movie, a popular format decades ago, when independent TV stations bought theatrical films for prime time. With more potential customers in the market now, syndicators expect to sell many more movies. One syndicator quipped that it would now probably be called “The $600,000 Movie,” with orphaned stations pleading poverty.
The stations that already know their fate sought double and triple runs of existing product: court, off-network sitcoms (looking toward TBS' prime time model), top-tier talk shows and, of course, movies.
Formal film-package presentations are slated to begin this week. Sony's Weiser says he is negotiating to “increase the profile of A-list movie titles” by carving out non-exclusive “premium windows for second and third runs.”
Reviving library product
Distributors looked at reviving old and new library product and at changing some fall 2006 shows now in development so that they are more prime time-friendly. That may not be easy, since new first-run shows generally start in daytime, where a different audience dynamic exists.
Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development for King World and CBS Paramount Domestic Television, hinted that Rachael Ray could be fine-tuned to have some prime time elements. The CW changes allow for “customized development that opens the door to a new way to do something,” she says.
Twentieth Television entered NATPE with 65% of the country cleared for Desire, its new English-language telenovelas, and left Thursday with 70%. The syndicator temporarily froze sales after the CW news broke, since it was seen as an obvious candidate for prime time.
Some stations plan to run Desire at 7 p.m., selling it as part of a three-hour prime rotation, to get better ad rates and gain a lead-in advantage over network affiliates starting prime at 8 p.m.
Meanwhile, Twentieth Television's biggest customers, the Fox-owned stations, have many options on the table, including more first-run production created by their syndicator sibling.