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Turning Toward 2012 - Broadcasting & Cable

Turning Toward 2012

With many post-'Oprah' plans settled, syndicators are plotting for opportunity even further down the road
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The all-important Oprah question—which program will replace what has arguably been TV’s highest-rated and most lucrative talk show for the past 25 years?—has been quietly answered. Instead of crowning a new Oprah, TV stations are turning toward several less dramatic options, such as acquiring or upgrading Warner Bros.’ Ellen and Sony’s Dr. Oz, or producing a local show or news expansion (see cover story). With that question settled, syndicators’ thoughts are turning toward 2012.

Not that 2011 should be scratched off the to-do list. This year’s rookies have just opened, and none of the early season ratings results are bowling anyone over. That means that next fall there will be open slots—besides Oprah’s—and syndicators are readying projects for pitching.

Most syndication executives expect stations to watch their shows’ performances through the November ratings book and then start shopping. By the time that January’s NATPE convention in Miami rolls around, stations and syndicators should be ready to do some business.

Still, most of 2011’s major time slots have been taken, and 2012 is the next time when important slots could open up. One of those potential slots is currently filled by CBS Television Distribution’s Rachael Ray, whose contract ends in 2012. Rachael Ray airs at 10 a.m. in the highly rated post-Live With Regis and Kelly slot on two of the country’s strongest stations: ABC-owned WABC New York and WPVI Philadelphia. Some syndication executives wishfully think that show, whose ratings aren’t as strong in other markets, may end its run; others say that the worst-case scenario is that ABC decides not to renew it and it moves to other stations. Still, if either of those options occurs, a key time slot may open up.

Rachael Ray is the most user-friendly piece of programming you can have on your air,” says one syndication executive, noting that the show about cooking and other female-friendly topics invites advertisers. Syndicators are turning more to brand integration and strategic alliances as they look for more ways to earn revenues, as ratings continue to decline in the fragmented daytime marketplace.

Some station groups are turning away completely from expensive syndicated programming, which could create opportunities for innovators. The Scripps Television Group recently decided not to renew CTD’s Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, the two shows with the highest household ratings averages in syndication, in favor of trying locally produced programming in those access slots.

In addition, Raycom has joined Post-Newsweek in declining to renew CTD’s Dr. Phil, and instead is filling that slot with its own show, America Now, developed and produced with ITV Studios (see Station to Station). And Tribune, while firmly committed to remaining in business with NBC Universal and its trio of talkers—Maury, Jerry Springer and Steve Wilkos—is rolling out The Bill Cunningham Show in fall 2011. Other groups, such as Meredith and Gannett, already have locally produced daytime programs on the air.

“Stations are always looking to find ways to economically take advantage of the resources they have and to not have to do multi-year deals for syndicated product,” says Bill Carroll, VP of programming at Katz Television Group Programming. “Whether that’s ultimately a trend will depend on how successful any of these group efforts turn out to be.”

For a station group to successfully create, produce and distribute its own show, “you have to have the right mix of stations and time periods, and the economics have to be perfect,” says one station executive. “When one of those shows works, everyone jumps on the bandwagon.”

No one has jumped on such a locally produced bandwagon since Oprah herself started in Chicago in 1986, upstaging another local phenomenon, Phil Donahue, whose own TV career was launched in Dayton, Ohio, in 1967.

The return to more locally produced programming means that another Oprah or Phil could rise to prominence, but today’s syndication economics are far more confining than they were when Oprah got her start. How to work within those economic limits is the code that everyone is trying to crack.

Says one syndication executive, “We need to develop new and different shows, and there are opportunities out there to incubate them. We need to try to fi gure out what those shows might be, and then produce and price them at a level that understands today’s economics.”

Come 2012, syndicators also might find themselves with more time slots to fill than they expected. “It’s an interesting question,” says another syndicator. “Will the stations that converted to news be happy with that decision, or will there be too much news on the air by then?”

E-mail comments to palbiniak@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

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