Taking Control

Group tinkers with the syndie model

As the studio pickings get progressively slimmer for syndicated fare, Hearst-Argyle Television is taking control of its own programming future.

The station group is moving ahead on its production deal with Carlos Watson, formerly a political commentator with CNN. Watson's first quarterly special for the 29-station group aired during a two-week window in March, and attracted an audience of 2.2 million people. The next episode is almost ready and will air twice on most Hearst-Argyle stations between September 1 and September 16.

Guests for the interview show, called Conversations with Carlos Watson, cover the waterfront: entertainment, sports, politics and business. This time around Watson sits down with Desperate Housewives' Eva Longoria, whom he knew before she became famous as Wisteria Lane's resident gold digger; California actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Grammy-winning crooner John Legend; supermodel/bad girl Naomi Campbell and Lupe Valdez, the lesbian Latina who is up for reelection as Dallas' sheriff.

“Carlos has a knack for getting the most out of people,” says Emerson Coleman, Hearst-Argyle's vice president of programming. “He asks them very tough questions, and they seem to be comfortable with him.”

Watson, 37, already has had several careers, including print journalist, political operative, consultant, owner of an educational non-profit and television journalist. He's a Harvard and Stanford law graduate, and he began his TV career in 2002, with guest appearances on Fox and Court TV. He quickly found his way to CNBC and then to CNN, where he was a political commentator for the 2004 election.

While at CNN, he hosted two episodes of an interview show much like Conversations with Carlos. That sparked an idea. In 2006, he launched his own production company, Run Rabbit Run Productions, and got into business with Hearst-Argyle.

For now, the idea is to do an episode of the program each quarter, with each of Hearst-Argyle's stations airing the show at least once in primetime. The goal is to give Watson as much promotion as possible before turning the show into a daytime strip that will air on the Hearst-Argyle TV stations as well expand into national syndication.

“The show certainly has been built, created and designed for our stations. That's the most important fact about this project. We have a model here that works perfectly for our stations,” says Coleman. “Taking it into national syndication will happen. It's just a matter of when it will happen. Quite frankly, we want to go slowly so that we do it right. I couldn't say 100% whether this will happen this year or the following year, but I would be very surprised if it's not one of those.”

Coleman and his bosses at Hearst-Argyle became interested in producing their own programs after taking a long-term look at the syndication landscape.

“It's not because there is a lack of product,” he says. “But from where we sit, we have to make the decision that whatever show we buy is going to fare well on our stations. We already have a lot of major syndication franchises locked in for years. We're looking for shows that fit into our station environments.”

Hearst-Argyle's trial with Watson is just one of the ways station groups are experimenting with syndication's business model. Last year, Tyler Perry partnered with ten TV stations to air a test-run of his first-run sitcom, Tyler Perry's House of Payne, using $5 million of his own money to produce the project. Perry initially gave the stations the show's first 10 episodes for free just to build buzz around it, but went on to sign a reported $200 million distribution deal with TBS to air the first 100 episodes exclusively. Stations will begin airing the show in 2008.

Says Coleman: “I think the rules are changing. There's no rule that says business has to be done the way it was five or 10 years ago.”