Everybody knows it: Syndication ain't what it used to be. Even ratings for the all-powerful The Oprah Winfrey Show have dipped to unusual depths; when syndication's reigning queen premiered her 23rd season on Sept. 8, her show scored a 3.6 rating/9 share in the weighted metered markets. That keeps Oprah firmly in place as the No. 1 talk show, but represents a big drop for a program that's spent the last five years in the 6 and 7 rating range.
In addition, the five syndicated shows that premiered thus far this season have yet to break a 2.0 household rating, yet most studios are calling them solid, even good. With fragmentation the order of the day, expectations for syndicated shows have plunged. As the season gets started, B&C's Paige Albiniak spoke about the state of the industry with Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, a veteran executive who has worked in almost every area of the TV business and who launched the syndicated talk show Bonnie Hunt this month.
People say to ignore early syndication ratings because the shows will grow—but most don't. Should we really expect programs to show enough growth after they premiere to warrant being patient?
The reason to expect growth is that initially you are going into a failed time period with low general market awareness. You are dependent on whatever your lead-in is to bring an audience, and when the audience arrives they are often expecting the canceled show.
Awareness is low because marketing a new syndicated show is tricky given the many station priorities. We don't expect people to necessarily know to go to channel 4 at noon to see Bonnie. We think it takes between five and seven weeks for the audience to begin to know there's an alternative and where and when to find it.
That said, a show does need to have what it takes to survive. If it opens and it's not terribly interesting or if people were never interested in the first place, that's a show that's hard to grow.
Bonnie opened at a 1.1, and you've said that rating meets your initial expectations for that show. Is the investment worth it if the show may never get much bigger than this?
It's worth it. Whether its Bonnie or Ellen or Tyra, these kinds of shows provide a particular type of environment that advertisers and audiences are looking for. On a supply-and-demand basis, they work.
When you have an exceptional talent such as Bonnie, who you believe in and know can deliver the goods, and who has a distinctive point of view that is not represented on television, you absolutely take a shot. That is the business we and our station partners are in.
What do syndicators need to do to help struggling TV stations?
One area we focus on is marketing. We go out and spend money to create substantial on- and off-air campaigns.
We believe one of the things that differentiates us is the tremendous resources that we pour into research to learn about awareness, what unique selling proposition a show possesses, and so forth. We then create and deliver national and localizable on- and off-air campaigns. They have local expertise, we have national expertise. Stations can't be that focused on our shows because they have a lot of other things to worry about.
Do you think there will always be a role for syndicated programming on TV stations?
I absolutely think there's a huge primary role for first-run syndicated television, especially as we move into the digital transition. First-run programs help to uniquely position a station in the ultra-competitive TV marketplace. These shows are generally exclusive to TV stations in a market; in success, they help give stations notoriety and identification, are easier to market since they are on five days a week, and programmatically provide 170 episodes each year of original, distinct programming that viewers can't get anywhere else in the market.
I think stations realize that syndicated programming isn't necessarily a niche; it's an important part of what any station can do to distinguish itself in the marketplace.
Ellen joined ET, The Insider, Oprah and Dr. Phil in going high-definition this season. Do you expect to eventually take all your shows HD?
The HD question is one we look at each year. There is a substantial expense associated with it and not only from our point of view—TV stations have to be prepared to broadcast in HD. We did Ellen because we knew she was a franchise that would be on for many years to come, and when the opportunity to move her [off NBC’s lot in Burbank] onto the Warner Bros. lot arose, it seemed like an appropriate forward-looking investment. There are still not many TV stations that can receive and broadcast syndicated shows in HD. If stations are not uniform and want SD and HD versions, the additional costs can really add up. But I do believe over time we’ll all migrate to HD. It’s a timing issue.