NATPE Q&A: Fox’s Frank Cicha Talks Daytime TV Woes, Program Tests and Taking More Swings

Frank Cicha
Courtesy of Fox Television Stations

Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for Fox Television Stations, is one of the most influential players in the syndication business. He’s a 25-year Fox veteran who started out at the Twentieth Television distribution arm before moving to the station group in 1997. In preparation for the TV biz’s annual National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Miami this week, Cicha weighed in with Variety on the challenges facing the first-run sector and steps that station owners and distributors can take to help boost its fortunes.

Why has daytime TV become so brutal for new shows?

If I wanted to defend what’s gone on in daytime, I could say much of the problem with new shows has to do to with audience fragmentation. That’s partially true. But if I wanted to be honest, I’d say much of the problem has to do with two other things. The first is the lack of original ideas being brought to the daypart. People ask us why we bought Harry Connick Jr.’s new show. It’s because that program is not one of the 100 or so we’ve seen trying to copy Oprah Winfrey. He’s fresh and different and will bring energy to daytime.

The second problem would be that failed shows often stay on much longer than they deserve to. Lack of originality means it’s not worth viewers’ time to show up. Keeping failed shows on means viewers are probably not coming back. Either way, I don’t think syndicators and broadcasters have the luxury of three strikes anymore. I think we’re coming to bat behind in the count. There’d better be a real reason for people to watch these things, and if it turns out there’s not, get rid of it quick and do something else. Think about it. Say a film opens at a movie theater and bombs. How long does it stay in the theater? Barely two more weeks, much less two years.

Where has the audience gone? Is it possible for a station to sustain a strip with a sub-1.0 rating in the key demos of adults 18-49 or women 25-54?

We all know about fragmentation and we all know about other devices and platforms, but these shouldn’t be excuses. I believe you can sustain a strip with a local demo rating below a 1.0 — though it better not be too far below! Getting a cable platform can certainly make a project viable nationally. We have a few shows working for us now in that non-exclusive model. We also have one — “TMZ Live” — working in the local-only model. That’s a paradigm I’d like to see more people embrace, as long as they realize that if it works it’s because of a good program, not the business model. Good programs make business models work, not vice-versa. The fact is a 0.8 or 0.9 (rating) locally in adults 25-54 will win you a lot of time periods these days. That’s the playing field. Being number one still matters in local broadcasting. You don’t want to be a bottom feeder in today’s ad climate.

Is the era of the mega-hit daytime talk show over?

As far as daytime TV talk shows, I don’t believe they are “over” because of all the failures. I don’t believe any genre is over unless we collectively want it to be. To quote Bluto from “Animal House”: “‘Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” Successful daytime talk shows still provide something very important for viewers — a place that’s comfortable, with a person, or persons, that they enjoy spending time with. There’s also an escapist element to the good ones that I think matters. The trick is finding the right talent and that’s where testing comes in. It is way clear by now that success is not about the biggest or most expensive name.

In the past you’ve talked about the importance of shows having a “sustainable economic model.” Does that mean minding the production budget? Building in brand integrations?

Let’s face it. It’s nobody’s goal in this business to lose a lot of money. Yet, if you saw some of the proposals we’ve seen, you’d almost think it was on somebody’s wish list. Some of what we see is just nuts. The good news is it’s happening less often. People are more in tune to today’s economics. New business models are being built. In the end though, good shows make business models work, not vice versa.

Folks are also being more honest about what kind of license fees to expect. Every station group, including us, wants to expand (in-house) first-run production. None of us are doing it so we can pay higher license fees to distributors. We’ll always have to pay for hits and that’s fine but a more realistic view of the money available for new projects is healthy.  As a result, integrations, cable and international (sales) are critical and are coming into the conversations earlier than ever.  Integrations are evolving in a positive way. When executed well, the best ones are seamless. “The Wendy Williams Show” comes to mind.

“The right way to launch strips is to do more of them. The wrong way is to do fewer.”
Frank Cicha

What bugs you most about the way distributors handle new shows? 

I find the initial meetings introducing product fascinating. I always note the number of attendees. Smaller meetings generally dictate a clearer vision. The more people in the room, the murkier it becomes. We once took a meeting with a giant star who showed up with one other person. Another time, we took a meeting with a talent that isn’t a giant star who brought a battalion. In baseball terms, they expanded the 40-man roster. And everyone on the roster had to give two minutes on why their involvement matters. It made us wonder where the project came from. The agent’s office? The personal assistant’s powder room? Either way, it was uncomfortable and the project was not going to work.  Another point about small versus big meetings: For all their differences in tone, they have one thing in common.  Everyone attending them wants to get paid. That’s another reason we prefer smaller meetings.

Is there a right way and a wrong way to launch a strip?

I think the right way to launch strips is to do more of them. The wrong way is to do fewer. At last year’s NATPE, people were talking about three new strips. This year there’s one available. That’s scary. NATPE has become two days of conversations on when you got there, followed by two days of updates on when you’re leaving. Taking more swings at shows will change this. It’s disheartening to hear about worthwhile projects being held up in negotiation. “I need bigger back end!” Remember Wayne Gretzky saying “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Well, 100% of the shows that don’t get on won’t have front end, much less back end.

Fox has committed to test-driving a handful of projects every year through trial runs of shows on a handful of your stations. What have you learned from that process?

We’ve learned that audiences would rather have original programming in the summer. Duh! We’ve also learned that priests and politicians may not always make great talk show hosts, but that’s another story. Last summer, we had two original series, “Boris & Nicole” and “Ice & Coco,” that had test runs on some of our stations. While neither ended up going forward, both were commendable efforts that did well in their time periods against largely repeat competition. I’d take that every year. And I’m surprised more stations aren’t doing tests. I also have to say that testing for us isn’t as much about “controlling our destiny” or having full ownership of the product as it is about improving the industry batting average. For years we’ve all heard how 19 of 20 syndicated shows fail, or something like that. That means one out of 20 succeeds. By simply increasing the number of projects we’ve done, both nationally and in tests, we’ve been able to improve that to about one in 7 over the last decade. Failing with projects isn’t the issue. Not trying enough of them is.