Fox Stations Combat ‘Broken’ Syndication Biz with In-House Development

The Fox O&O group will be busy this summer mounting test runs of three series in about half of its 18 markets. If Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for Fox Television Stations, had his way, they’d be doing even more.

“There’s some development costs involved but we’re otherwise (airing) dead programs that we know are going away in September,” Cicha (pictured) told Variety. “Why wouldn’t we try to see what we can do and put on fresh stuff when no one else is?”

Fox’s ambitious slate of two strips and a weekly half-hour — “Hollywood Today Live,” “The Daily Help Line” and comedy roundup “Laughs” — reflects strategic shifts made last summer at the Fox station group and at the Twentieth Television syndication arm.

Fox Television Stations now has its own in-house development unit, operating independently of Twentieth TV, under the direction of Stephen Brown, exec VP of programming and development. That move coincided with the corporate decision to have Twentieth TV report into the 20th Century Fox TV studio arm rather than to Fox Television Stations, and with Brown’s switch from working at Twentieth TV to the station group.

Fox Television Stations has an enviable collection of 28 major-market stations serving 37.3% of U.S. TV households, including duopolies in six top 10 markets. That’s quite a Petri dish for testing new programming.

The group has been active in the past few years in fielding regional tests of shows with outside distribs such as Debmar-Mercury and Warner Bros. But having the development spring from an in-house well is particularly advantageous, in Cicha’s view, as it offers the station group maximum flexibility in success or failure.

The programs that run this summer can be rigorously evaluated on the merits — both ratings and the all-important “am I embarrassed when I watch them” measure, Cicha said. If they get lucky and one or two or even all three do well, the station group will be free to proceed with them on their own timetable. They will not need to coordinate with a distributor to mount a sales blitz to support a national rollout.

The three shows have been designed to be produced on a budget that makes them economically viable even if the shows are not picked up by any other non-Fox stations. That’s a sea-change from the focus on national clearances (for maximum advertising and affiliate-fee revenue) thinking that has dominated the first-run business for the past three decades.

“In the old model you’d never be able to do three tests at once with the same distributor because they could never get one cleared much less two if they happened to work,” Cicha said. “We don’t care about any of that.”

Cicha is blunt about what he sees as a “broken” national syndication model. Fox has been frustrated this season because its stations did reasonably well with the Warner Bros.-distributed yakker “Bethenny,” hosted by former “Real Housewlves of New York” player Bethenny Frankel. But the show could not sustain its clearances in many other markets, which meant WB had to pull the plug after one season.

“The national syndication model has become a whole big struggle to find out how much money you’re going to lose,” Cicha said.

Fox and Twentieth TV avoided losing millions of dollars on a national launch by mounting a regional test of a yakker hosted by Kris Jenner last summer. The show didn’t impress, nor did Jenner spark to the demands of hosting a daily talkshow.

Dodging that bullet made Cicha and Brown determined to change the way the group approached development. Other station groups, such as Scripps and Raycom Media, are treading the same ground. But with Fox, given the breadth of its sticks, this is change writ large.

“There’s no more doing shows just to say we’re doing shows” on a national level, Cicha said. “If the moon falls out of the sky and we get a hit, and we need a distributor we’ll go to Twentieth and that’ll be great. But that’s not my primary motivation. We’ve had too many projects that have worked for us but haven’t worked nationally. The idea that a show we wanted to keep (‘Bethenny’) had to go away because it was not economically viable tells me the national syndication model is broken.”

Cicha was quick to emphasize that the station group’s latest endeavors does not mean that Twentieth TV is out of the national first-run business, or that the Fox O&Os are closed to shows from outside distributors. They are not declaring hard-and-fast absolutes — not by a long shot. And surely a distrib will come along with a project or talent that will encourage Fox to gamble on a national rollout.

But there is no doubt that Cicha is happier to have his stations in the driver’s seat this summer. The plan is to run the strips for six weeks in eight to nine markets, which is a broader base of stations than in past Fox tests. The weekly “Laughs” will be on about 10 stations, running on both outlets in some duopoly markets. All three shows will have a presence in New York and L.A.

“These runs could be six weeks or six days depending on how they do,” Cicha said. “We get to make the call. Stephen Brown did a great job of making these shows come in at a price point that makes them viable.”

“Hollywood Today” and “Daily Help Line” will be produced out of a storefront studio situated near the corner of Hollywood and Vine starting July 14. Brown described “Hollywood Today” as “the ‘Sharknado’ version of ‘The View,’ “ with four hosts (Kristen Brockman, AJ Gibson, Tanner Thomason, and Porscha Coleman) blending chatter about the day’s headlines and gossip with in-studio celeb guests.

“Daily Help Line,” hosted by Miles Adcox and Spirit, is billed as an interactive advice column that also features guests. “Laughs,” which will have a 13-episode run starting Aug. 2 aims to serve as a “comedy aggregator” offering a roundup of yuckster highlights from the week as well as user-generated submissions. Host/exec producer Steve Hofstetter, an established YouTube personality, will be almost a one-man band in gathering the material.

Cicha said the idea for “Laughs” came from Fox TV Stations CEO Jack Abernethy who saw it as akin to a navigation guide for viewers.

“This isn’t ‘Saturday Night Live’ with 35 writers,” Cicha said. “This is a super low-cost model and one guy who we think can do it all.”

With unknown talent and untested formats, the potential for the shows to deliver hash marks for ratings is high. But the financial risk is still low and the possible rewards significant if even one shows signs of life.

“It’s liberating,” Cicha enthused.

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