Cable’s love affair with TV syndication, while not exactly raging out of control, seems to have deepened over the last few years.
The annual NATPE convention figures prominently in this mutual infatuation, acting like an aphrodisiac to cable networks and syndie distributors.
The two parties have accelerated the trend ignited in 2001 when “Crossing Over With John Edward” proved a success with simultaneous daily plays in firstrun syndication and on the Sci Fi Channel, where it originated a year earlier.
The two most visible syndie strips in 2003-04, “Ellen De Generes” and “Sharon Osbourne,” are each getting extra weekday plays outside of their normal runs on TV stations — “Ellen” on the Oxygen cable network at 11 p.m. and “Sharon” on the WGN superstation.
Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, says that his clients have become resigned to the fact that just about every station contract for a new syndication strip includes a clause granting the distributor the option to sell the program simultaneously to a cable network.
These deals are a slam dunk for the distribution company because it gets some additional viewers to add to its national rating, and some extra cash to keep the show’s ledgers in the black.
Cable networks come out ahead because they get fresh, low-cost programming that, in many cases, they couldn’t afford to produce on their own.
It’s the TV stations that dislike these deals because, by being forced to give up exclusivity, they face the exodus of viewers to their cutthroat rivals in cable.
But at least the TV stations get pride of place: For a syndicated firstrun strip, no cable deal gets triggered until the show has generated enough station clearances to make it a firm go.
The same marketplace reality is true for high-visibility off-network sitcoms, the most lucrative programming franchise of them all. These sitcom reruns frequently generate bidding wars among TV stations in a given market. The winning bidder comes away with at least a three-year exclusive window.
Typically, TV stations in most of the U.S. will have committed to a sitcom before the distrib invites cable networks to make offers for a longterm window beginning in year four of the show’s syndication run.
The one exception is “Sex & the City,” which TBS gets this summer for a 15-month exclusive primetime run before TV stations, led by the Tribune group, start stripping it in fall 2005.
Where cable TV turns the tables on the stations is with off-network hours. These shows fetch the big bucks from cable networks, which get the shows for Monday-through-Friday play. The two best-performing rerun hours right now in the cable Nielsens are “Law & Order” on TNT and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” on USA.
In a down marketplace for advertising, the only off-network hours that will make any real money in syndication are the runaway hits like “CSI,” whose weekend play kicks off in the fall. (Spike TV has the cable rights.)
TV stations have long since abandoned buying theatrical movies in any kind of bulk. Syndicated movies aren’t needed because Fox, the WB and UPN took over the stations’ primetime slots with expensive network programming years ago, leaving theatricals for cable networks like TNT, TBS, USA and FX.
Referring to off-net hours and theatrical movies, Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of the Fox Networks Group, says, “Much of the syndication business is with cable, not broadcast TV.”
Every cable web will send at least a few programming execs to meet with TV syndicators, independent producers and advertisers.
For example, Dave Kenin, executive VP of programming for the Hallmark Channel, says he’s attending NATPE because “we don’t want to miss anything. Three days at NATPE can bring us up to date on programming trends in one fell swoop.”
Leslie Glenn-Chesloff, senior VP of planning, scheduling and acquisitions for Lifetime, says one of her main tasks at NATPE will be to search out movies, which “Lifetime buys from both large and small distributors” to fill five primetime slots each week and multiple hours on weekends.
There’s no doubt that cable-net execs will be out in force at NATPE, says Katz’s Carroll.
“Broadcasters are always keeping a wary eye on cable,” he says, “so cable should be keeping an eye on us. And NATPE is the perfect place to do it.”