Bishop TD Jakes
Courtesy of CBS

For syndication, it’s the age of experimentation.

The path to a national first-run launch has become more complicated in an era when success is defined by demo ratings that rarely rise above the 2.0 rating threshold. The daytime TV audience has become as fragmented as the primetime crowd.

The challenge of reaching a broad national audience is driving the trend of regionally focused programming efforts spearheaded by station groups rather than studios. The promises and pitfalls of these and other changes facing the syndication business will be much discussed at the annual National Assn. of Television Program Executives conference in Miami.

“We don’t do one-size-fits-all deals,” says Sean Compton, Tribune Media’s president of strategic programming and acquisitions. Tribune Media is one of the nation’s largest station groups covering the major markets vital to any syndie series. But Compton emphasizes that program-buying decisions have become increasingly focused on selecting shows for individual market tastes rather than group-wide acquisitions.

In this environment, even the largest distributors have become more cautious about betting the $30 million-plus that it takes for a national launch of a high-end production.

The tough market for first-run strips is evidenced by the thin lineup of new shows for fall. Hopes are resting on jazz singer Harry Connick Jr., who is toplining NBCUniversal’s comedy-variety hour “Harry,” and mega-church leader T.D. Jakes, who aims to inspire with a topical talker backed by Tegna Media.

Steve Harvey and Wendy Williams have gained a toehold in the past decade in a field dominated by veterans such as Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil McGraw. “Judge Judy,” now in its 20th anniversary season, reigns as the most-watched program in all of first-run syndication.

“Harry” is a gamble for NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution, which just pulled the plug on “The Meredith Vieira Show.”

Connick’s hour promises to blend comedic segments with musical performances and other classic variety-show elements. Brothers Eric and Justin Stangel, longtime producers of “The Late Show With David Letterman,” are at the helm.

“Harry” was initially developed for NBC’s O&O station group when it became clear “Meredith” would not continue. But NBC stations have opted to fill that void with another hour of afternoon news. That decision would have spelled the end of “Harry” — until the Fox station group surprised the biz by rolling the dice on Connick, who has been a judge on Fox’s “American Idol” since the 2014 edition.

“T.D. Jakes” is a prime example of the trend of station groups becoming more proactive in developing their own shows to suit regional needs. Jakes, who heads the Dallas-based Potter’s House church, has flirted with launching a syndicated talk show for years.

Last summer, distributor Debmar-Mercury, a unit of Lionsgate, and the Tegna station group (formerly known as Gannett Broadcasting) ran a monthlong test of Jakes’ show on its stations in Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Cleveland. The show scored in heartland markets, thanks no doubt to Jakes’ prominence as a pastor, his 5 million-plus social media followers and many successful books.

But even as Tegna Media was ready to give “Jakes” the greenlight for 29 of its 46 TV stations, Debmar-Mercury opted out of handling the national launch. The distributor cited the lack of optimum time periods available on stations to make the show a success on a national basis.

Tegna Media wound up recruiting syndication veteran Scott Carlin to handle sales outside Tegna markets. “T.D. Jakes” is likely to have a slow rollout around the country starting in the fall — a throwback to decades past that is becoming increasingly common.

To wit, Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution is taking the test-run approach to its offbeat game show “South of Wilshire,” which has just launched an eight-week run with a handful of Fox O&Os. If the results are promising, WB will aim for a slow rollout later in the year in other markets.

Count Sinclair Broadcast Group among the mega-station groups that are using their expanded size and scope to nurture original programs. “The Security Brief With Paul Viollis,” exec produced by syndication veteran Terry Murphy, is in the middle of a four-week test on 13 Sinclair stations including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. The show blends true-crime stories with safety tips from security expert Viollis.

“Brief” is an unconventional concept for daytime TV, which makes it a perfect sign of the times for syndication.

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