It’s a perfect syndication storm. The market for new first-run programming is in flux this year thanks to a host of factors — from mega station mergers, to a soft local advertising market and hesitancy on the part of producers after a long run of disappointing new shows. TV stations are increasingly turning to local newscasts and second runs of established shows to fill daytime slots.
“It’s as hard out there as I’ve ever seen it,” says a veteran station group executive about the daytime programming landscape.
As of late December, Warner Bros. was testing the waters on a shiny-floor comedy-variety series fronted by Jane Lynch. CBS Television Distribution has shopped a conflict-resolution talk show “Face the Truth” hosted by Vivica A. Fox. But the only new show formally cleared for take off in the fall is “Caught in Providence,” a court show from Debmar-Mercury.
“Our approach to the market is that it’s up to us to find better shows, and when we do, the marketplace will pay for them,” says Ira Bernstein, co-president of Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury.
Veteran observers cite the marketplace disruption and strategic shifts caused by consolidation of station owners as a factor in the syndication shake out.
Sinclair Broadcast Group’s $3.9 billion takeover bid for Tribune Media is still awaiting federal approval and that has delayed decision-making on new programs and renewals for both station groups. Sinclair and Tribune are high on the list of largest buyers of first-run syndie shows in the country.
Warner Bros. talk show “The Real” snagged a renewal through 2020, but producers on other long-running talkers “Maury,” “The Jerry Springer Show” and “The Steve Wilkos Show,” as well as the “Crime Watch Daily” magazine show are still awaiting Sinclair and Tribune’s verdicts before committing millions of dollars to launch a national show. NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution and Fox O&Os are also facing a call on whether Harry Connick’s talk-variety hour “Harry” survives for a third year on its core station group.
Discovery Communications’ Investigation Discovery cabler is taking advantage of this void by offering a new strip, “True Crime Files,” comprised of old episodes from its vast archive of programming. Sinclair and Tribune stations have signed on for the show, ensuring that it will get a national launch. The program is being pitched to station on an all barter advertising basis, which is attractive to buyers at a time of broader uncertainty.
Tegna, a mid-sized group with 46 stations serving 38 markets (soon to be 47 stations after it completes its $325 million purchase of KFMB-TV San Diego), has gained notice among broadcasters for its aggressive original programming initiative for entertainment shows that are produced in-house and air across the group. The group has two daytime strips (“Daily Blast Live” and “Sister Circle”) and the weekly talent competition “Sing Like a Star” running across its footprint. More shows are in the pipeline, says Bob Sullivan, Tegna’s senior VP of programming.
“It’s up to us to find better shows, and when we do, the marketplace will pay for them.”
“We’ve always said our mission is not to replace syndicated programming per se. Our mission is to put on the best shows for our local audience,” Sullivan says. “We didn’t want to have to rely any more on the studios to supply that content. We have expertise in production and we know [Tegna’s] markets better than anybody. In hindsight it was fortuitous we did that when we did.”
Tegna’s example could be a template for other station groups that have even larger footprints. Sullivan emphasizes that using Tegna’s existing resources to produce shows out of its stations in Atlanta, Denver and New Orleans allows them to keep costs down. Tegna is making the programming investment in a bid to differentiate its stations with shows that stand out from the pack. The deluge of content from all quarters should force local TV stations to up their game, Sullivan asserted.
“If you look at OTT and the cable content providers; they’re succeeding because the quality of the content is good,” he says. “Broadcast syndication is starting to atrophy a bit. In this day and age this is the worst time to be risk-averse and not to innovate.”