Station Groups Bite Hand That Needs ‘Em

Major TV station groups, once the key clients of program syndicators, are now trying to become their rivals. The station groups are banding together to produce and distribute series themselves in an experiment that might change the face of the syndication business – provided the partners don’t kill each other before getting their first show off the ground.

If they succeed, these alliances between station groups could shift the balance of power away from the traditional suppliers of programming and make stations more self-sufficient.

But, as any hard-pressed syndicator on the NATPE convention floor will tell you, coming up with a show that pleases all takers is a tricky task.

Take the newly allied CBS-owned stations (there are seven) and the Group W Obama; Os (there are six), which together reach 32% of the U.S. They are already at each other’s throats over a $30 million live hourlong magazine called “Day & Date.”

By contrast, an even bigger station alliance – the nine Fox-owned TV stations and the 10 owned by New World Communications, which clear 42% of the country – is, at least so far, a model of cooperation: All the O&Os in this alliance have agreed to take the two new daily hourlong talkshows in the works for 1995-96, the New World-produced “Mark Walberg” and the Twentieth TV-produced “Gabrielle Carteris.”

While the impetus for the new partnerships was a need to strengthen affiliation ties, the creation and control of programming quickly became another key component of these relationships.

The CBS/Group W linkup, if the stations end up resolving their differences, and the Fox/New World venture “are rewriting the rules,” says Russ Barry, a veteran station executive and TV syndicator who’s now president of Turner Program Sales. As a few companies like Paramount TV, King World and Warner Bros. Domestic TV continue to consolidate their power as the dominant suppliers of syndicated programming, Barry says, the new O&O-group alliances “will allow these stations to control their own destinies.”

In Barry’s analysis, the giant syndicators “have sat in the driver’s seat” and extracted eye-popping license fees from stations for renewal of their hit series. In the future, these syndicators “may have to pull back; they may have to become, shall we say, more tolerant” about dollar increases for their programs, or be shoved aside as stations produce and clear their own programs. “But these station alliances may be lulling themselves into a sense of false security,” says Chuck Larsen, another veteran of the TV station/syndicator wars, who’s now president of MTM TV Distribution. “Of course, it’s nice if a group of stations can flip a switch and get immediate access to 42% of the country, but at the end of the day it’s what you put on the screen that matters. If it’s a show that people don’t want to see, you can have the best clearance in the world and the show will fail.”

And the show that’s under the most intense industry spotlight is “Day & Date,” which has become embroiled in a battle of corporate cultures between the CBS-owned stations and the Group W O&Os. The two entities are locked in a tense confrontation over whether the Group W-produced “Day & Date,” planned for this fall, is the best vehicle to deliver audiences into the late-afternoon newscasts. For public consumption, station group execs of CBS, fully aware that the network is laying out half the planned $30 million budget for the first year of “Day & Date,” say they’d like to support the series and are looking forward to viewing the first full-scale demonstration reel this week at the National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention in Las Vegas.

But beneath the placid surface, CBS sources say there’s no way network O&Os in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago will schedule a rookie show, no matter how promising, in the early-fringe time period leading directly into the stations’ local newscasts.

All of those stations recall the nightmare that descended on them 10 years ago when they tied the fate of their news to an elaborately produced magazine hour from Paramount TV called “America.” Anchored in the studio by three hosts who kept tripping over each other’s ad libs, “America” became such a mess that it drove hordes of Nielsen families over to the competition, fostering the reign of Oprah Winfrey on the ABC O&Os and plunging the CBS stations’ newscasts into a low-rated slump from which some of them are still trying to recover.

Group W is convinced that the CBS stations are dwelling morbidly on the past and should snap out of it. “This is like the primal scream; these station guys are re-enacting the day they came out of their mother’s womb,” says Jonathan Klein, president of the Group W TV stations. “We’ve bought bad shows over the years. But we replaced them with new shows until we found something that worked.”

Stringer rumor

Rumor now has it that CBS/Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer may step in and force the O&Os into line.

But one insider says four CBS O&Os have firmed up their news lead-ins, contractually, for the 1995-96 season, with Tribune Entertainment’s “Geraldo” set for 4 p.m. on WCBS New York, 3 p.m. on KCBS Los Angeles and 5 p.m. on WCIX Miami. (WCIX strips an hour of local news at 4 p.m.) WBBM Chicago just committed last week to Multimedia Entertainment’s “Sally Jessy Raphael” for the 3 p.m. timeslot beginning this fall, outbidding WMAQ, the NBC O&O in Chicago, where the show now resides.

Those CBS stations will have a hard time rewriting these syndicator contracts. The downgrading of “Geraldo” and “Sally Jessy” to lower-rated time periods in the four CBS markets would puncture Tribune’s and Multimedia’s profits because the syndicators carve out two minutes in each hour for sale to national advertisers. The revenues harvested by these ad spots is directly tied to the Nielsen numbers.

One solution CBS station executives are privately floating is for Group W to relax its plan to send out the live feed of “Day & Date” at 4 p.m. New York time. An earlier first feed, at 3 p.m., could allow WCBS and WBBM to shove “The Guiding Light,” the low-rated network soap opera, into a morning time period.

“That’s not going to happen,” says Derk Zimmerman, president and CEO of Group W Prods. “Day & Date” is “time period-specific, and its purpose is to create a news-lead-in franchise. ‘Geraldo’ may be a fine show, but its audience doesn’t stay around for the local news.”

Worst case

If worse comes to worst, Zimmerman continues, “Day & Date” “will bypass New York, L.A. and Chicago” in the fall. Under that scenario, the show that Group W produces will make such an impact that the CBS O&Os in the three markets will go after “Day & Date” willingly, and with enthusiasm. As Klein puts it, “The last thing we want to do is shove it down the stations’ throats.”

While CBS and Group W clash over “Day & Date,” the Fox-owned stations and the New World O&Os are preparing to clear two hours of their daytime schedules for “Mark Walberg” and “Gabrielle Carteris.” “We’re cooperating closely on these syndicated projects,” says Greg Meidel, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth TV.

And the Walberg and Carteris shows will be a godsend to the six New World stations that shifted their affiliation from either CBS or NBC, which program four hours of mostly soap operas in the heart of daytime, to Fox, which is not in the daytime-soap business.

As Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for rep firm Katz Communications, puts it, Walberg and Carteris “found some very willing buyers.”

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