NATPE 2015: Syndie Tides Shift in Wake of High-Profile Flops

Mega-groups losing patience, prefer to go their own way with frosh fare

Katie Couric couldn’t survive it. Queen Latifah had a short reign. So did Bethenny Frankel, Jeff Probst, Kris Jenner and Anderson Cooper, to name a few. Arsenio Hall and Ricki Lake couldn’t reignite their old spark in recent comeback bids.

The daytime TV landscape has become so fragmented in the past decade as to be treacherous for talent. New syndicated shows struggle mightily to deliver even a 1 rating in the key demographic (usually women 25-54). That makes it harder for stations and distributors to hang in there, even with shows that have promise, because the financials are so shaky.

The struggling is spurring a host of enterprise efforts by distributors and large station owners to shake up the status quo, which could result in big changes to the national syndication model that has dominated broadcast TV daytime programming since the 1980s.

The growth of women in the workforce and the expansion of cable, and now digital, alternatives, are well-known reasons for the daytime disruption for local broadcast stations.

But more recently the tides have been turned by the emergence of mega station groups: Sinclair, Tribune, Gannett and Media General, among them. After a flurry of mergers and buyouts in the past few years, a handful of companies have outsized influence over the fate of syndie shows because they control such a wide swath of TV real estate — oftentimes more than one station in each market.

The growing clout of the mega-groups has changed the dynamic with first-run distributors, and it is widening the programming gulf between stations in large urban markets and their counterparts in mid- and small-sized markets.

The Fox station group, for example, would have renewed the Warner Bros. talkshow hosted by former “Real Housewives of New York City” star Frankel.

The show performed well enough in its 2013-14 season run on Fox’s O&Os to warrant renewal. But “Bethenny” didn’t fare as well in other markets. With a handful of key execs now calling the shots in dozens and dozens of markets, it’s harder for distribs to persuade enough stations to have patience with a seedling show. In the end, “Bethenny” folded because Warner Bros. couldn’t justify the investment, even with Fox’s enthusiasm.

A revolt by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which controls 162 stations in 79 markets, also spelled the end for Arsenio Hall’s return to latenight, even after the show had been announced as a go for a second season with the support of Tribune Broadcasting’s major stations.

The upshot is a series of initiatives by distributors and station groups that could bring more of a regional focus to syndicated shows for the first time since Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” et al hit big in the 1980s.

Major purchasers of syndie programming such as Tribune and Fox are becoming more active in developing their own inhouse programming.

Tribune, with 42 stations, is stepping up its production efforts. It was the driving force behind Craig Ferguson’s talkshow effort that could not get off the ground for the fall. It’s also a key backer of the former latenight host’s “Celebrity Name Game,” which was renewed for a second season.

Fox’s stations are focused on test runs of shows that can be rolled out across the group without the need for national clearances. Gannett, which doubled its size last year thanks to its merger with Belo Television, is in a similar partnership with syndie distrib Debmar-Mercury.

The early fruits of these efforts are sure to be hot topics during NATPE. The challenges of the marketplace are underscored by the extremely thin crop of just three syndie strips targeting a fall bow.

Fox Television Stations’ programming chief Frank Cicha summed up the pessimism in the air when he unveiled a handful of shows — including “Hollywood Today Live” and “Laughs” — that had test runs on various Fox stations last summer.

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

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