Subtle but significant shift reshaping syndie marketplace

The licensing pact unveiled this week between Hulu and Debmar-Mercury for the Fox reality series “Hell’s Kitchen” underscores a subtle but significant shift reshaping the syndication marketplace.

TV series that might otherwise languish on studio shelves or get unloaded at fire-sale prices to traditional buyers like cable networks or station groups are finding a new set of aggressive buyers on the digital front that are spending significant dollars for rerun rights.

Netflix has practically had the subscription video-on-demand category to itself, as evidenced by its pact in June for exclusive streaming rights to AMC series “Mad Men” for a fee estimated north of $800,000 per episode. Its value will be put to the test next Wednesday when the show’s first four seasons bow on the service.

Though Netflix will undoubtedly continue to dominate the subscription VOD (SVOD) world given its 23 million subscribers, the “Kitchen” deal signaled it won’t be alone in the field for long. Hulu Plus, a subscription service launched last November that charges $8 per month, is getting more active in acquisitions (though its future is uncertain given that the company owned by News Corp., NBCUniversal and Disney is currently on the block).

It may be only a matter of time before still more SVOD market entrants start bidding on shows as they look to differentiate themselves in a sea of nonexclusive content available on digital platforms. Amazon Prime, which bowed in March, announced a pact Wednesday with CBS Corp. that may have been just for older catalog fare like “Frasier,” but industry observers say CEO Jeff Bezos will ultimately reach into his deep pockets to grab the newer programming necessary to make his service more competitive.

While there are plenty of other digital storefronts selling TV series, Apple’s iTunes, Microsoft’s XBox Live and Wal-mart’s Vudu offer a la carte models, which don’t offer license fees to Hollywood’s majors nearly as lucrative as SVOD players.

These services are bellying up to the same table as traditional syndie buyers because there’s a lot of primetime product the latter group don’t purchase. With few exceptions, syndication has proven to be a forbidding afterlife for any series that isn’t a sitcom or a procedural-style drama, which both typically offer episodes with self-contained storylines that can be scheduled out of order. That’s why a show like “CSI” can fetch $2 million an episode or a half-hour like “Friends” can be sold into multiple cycles well after exiting primetime.

That leaves series with heavily serialized storylines, which have historically performed poorly in syndication, and unscripted skeins with competition elements available for on-demand digital platforms. Lacking linear schedules, their all-you-can-eat model for one low fee is more conducive to serialized shows that can be devoured in binges of multiple episodes.

“What makes these shows difficult to sell in the syndicated-TV market is what makes them perfect for me,” said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix.

Intricately plotted series like “Lost” used to compensate for soft syndie sales with robust DVD revenues. But the market for TV-series DVD box sets has largely cratered, which makes finding new streams crucial if Hollywood wants to continue the kind of programming that is often its most critically acclaimed work, notes John Weiser, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Television, which has specialized in making cable series that fit this mold, from AMC’s “Breaking Bad” to FX’s “Rescue Me.”

“You have quality dramas that there’s an audience for, and Net-flix is the only one mining that resource right now,” he said. “You’re about to see many players enter the over-the-top subscription space.”

Where SVOD fits in the all-important windowing scheme is still subject to experimentation. For instance, the hefty fee Netflix is paying for “Mad Men” effectively keeps it off TV for multiple years, while Hulu will only have “Kitchen” exclusively for one year before it turns to TV. “South Park” was sold into syndication in a window shared by Netflix and Comedy Central simultaneously while most programs only make it to SVOD after a cycle on TV.

“It’s price-sensitive depending on which window you’re in,” noted Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury, which handled the syndie sales for “Park” and “Kitchen.”

What’s changed since the “Mad” pact is that the SVOD services no longer have second-class status across the table from the sellers.

“I would say since that deal and certainly since ‘House of Cards,’ there probably isn’t a show that doesn’t come into the syndication market that we’re not talked to about,” said Sarandos.

With the potential for impending new ownership and a projected sub count of just 1 million subs by end of summer, Hulu Plus is a distant second to Netflix. But Andy Forssell, senior VP of content acquisition and distribution, says Hulu has been active long enough to afford what it needs and know what it wants. “The Hulus of the world and some of our counterparts in the digital SVOD space have reached a level of economics where we can pay significant dollars to the content community,” he said. “And we know enough about our audience. We have several years of data under our belts.”

There may still be more SVOD players to come, with everyone from Microsoft to Redbox rumored to be mulling entry into the market. But the major studios and cable programmers may not have as much flexibility to sell off SVOD rights after inking a slew of cable, satellite and telco carriage deals that include turning over at least some streaming rights to those carriers, who are offering so-called TV Everywhere services as a means of competing with Netflix and its ilk. HBO, for one, has refused to sell off SVOD streaming rights in order to hold onto their own programs for branded digital platforms like HBO Go rather than see its content build up someone else’s service.

Some execs note an irony to SVOD services growing via cable product. Because cablers have generally been hesitant to buy rerun rights to shows closely associated with other networks — a factor that drove Warner Bros. TV to license FX drama “Nip/Tuck” to Netflix after failing to find a syndie buyer — the shift of cable dramas to SVOD could fuel the rise of a new generation of content providers that will eat into cable much as cable has to broadcasters. “They’re opening up their Achilles’ heel by letting that content go,” said one distributor.

But cablers counter that regardless of syndication, they’re not going to buy or create heavily serialized shows because viewers who don’t start from the very beginning of a series find themselves lost — especially on mythology-heavy shows like “Lost.”

John Landgraf, prexy of FX Networks, cites the example of “Damages,” which he opted to let DirecTV take off his hands after three seasons of declining auds despite considerable acclaim. “I don’t think I’d tool a show from scratch to make it intrinsically better to watch four episodes at a time on a DVR,” he said, noting that the series that currently populate his air manage to blend serialized and standalone storyline elements.

At a time when heavily serialized series like the recently canceled TNT drama “Men of a Certain Age” resorted to dumping their entire catalog of episodes online in futile hopes of getting viewers to catch up, SVOD services like Netflix may be the only thing that could make the TV industry feel bolder about crafting series like “Damages.”

But Landgraf predicts networks like FX won’t cede too much ground to new services because for all the concern about cord-cutting, there’s plenty of data that shows conventional TV’s passive pleasures will long endure. Landgraf said, “The vast majority will still be watching linear channels no matter how much Silicon Valley or any on-demand platform touts the opposite.”

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