Test Patterns For Summer

More new series are getting tryouts on path to airing
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For syndicators, this summer has been all about the tests. Debmar-Mercury kicked it off with a test of Are We There Yet? on TBS, following a model the company launched four years ago with Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. If TBS picks up that show, it will launch later in syndication.

Twentieth is testing two shows: The Kilborn Files, starring Craig Kilborn, and Huckabee, with former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, each in seven markets.

Tribune ran a four-day test of a new conflict talk show starring Cincinnati radio host Bill Cunningham (Tribune last week picked up the show for fall 2011), and plans another test of a show featuring shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge. Sean Compton, Tribune’s president of programming, says more tests are in Tribune’s future, especially as the group looks to expand its talk footprint.

“We produce hundreds and hundreds of hours of news programs, FBI features and specials in Seattle and San Diego, and tons of sports programming in Chicago. Why can’t we get into the talk business?” Compton says. Much of Tribune’s top management previously worked at radio company Clear Channel, alongside top talent such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

While tests may be more frequent in a time when neither syndicators nor stations are eager to lose money on concepts that quickly fail, testing a show before taking it wide is not a recent idea. Mega-daytime talents like Oprah Winfrey, Maury Povich and Rosie O’Donnell all got their starts in local markets.

Many industry executives, however, believe testing is the direction in which the entire industry should head. “Wouldn’t it be a much more dynamic business if there were 15 to 20 tests each year in the marketplace?” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. The company was one of the first syndicators to return to testing with shows such as House of Payne, which first aired in a six-week test run on TBS, and Wendy Williams, which the Fox stations tested two summers ago.

“If two or three shows came out of that each year, you’d actually find a hit,” Marcus continues. “The business would be better, the stations would be healthier and the Hollywood community would come out to participate. Instead of a syndicator losing $15-$20 million on a show and stations getting killed on it, it could be four weeks and out and no big deal.”

While syndicators and stations look at the ratings that tests receive, it’s just one part of the process, according to Joanne Burns, Twentieth’s executive VP of research and marketing. “It’s just as much about figuring out what works and what doesn’t—is the talent right, are the segments right—as it is about the ratings,” she says.

And not every show lends itself to testing. “We ask ourselves the simple two-part question on every project that comes up: Should we test this, or should we go national?” Burns says. “If it’s a huge idea and a huge talent, the salespeople will say, ‘Forego the test because I can really sell this.’ They are never going to take a huge name and say, ‘I want to test this first.’”

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