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Debmar-Mercury Boss on ‘Caught in Providence,’ the Future of Syndication

Ira Bernstein has been a player in the syndication business since the days when Sinclair owned about a dozen stations and the NATPE conference was a make or break moment for prospective new shows.

Bernstein joined forces with another syndie veteran, Mort Marcus, to form indie distributor Debmar-Mercury in 2004, and two years later it was acquired by Lionsgate. The company is home to “The Wendy Williams Show” and “Family Feud.” Debmar is heading to NATPE with a new court show, “Caught in Providence,” featuring a colorful judge dispensing plain-spoken justice in Providence, R.I.

Bernstein spoke with Variety about the state of the first-run business, the impact of broadcast TV M&A, and why he and Marcus were taken with an 81-year-old New England jurist.

How has the pending Sinclair-Tribune merger affected the business climate for first-run syndication? Everybody’s talking about what a difficult market it is with many renewals still up in the air and few new shows on offer.

There are some shows that have good auspices and look to be good productions but nothing has jumped off the page, so to speak, where [station owners] say “I have to have it.” That’s the difference this year. Then you have this consolidation going on and the fact that Sinclair and Tribune have delayed their decision-making both with renewals and new shows. Everything seems to be taking longer. But this year we’re going to be learning a lot about the shows that are and aren’t available and what is coming back at NATPE. That makes it a bit of a throwback.

What sold you on “Caught in Providence”?

It’s one of the few things we’ve ever seen that as soon as you press play everybody watches him and after three minutes you’re smiling. Almost every person we’ve shown it to looks up and says “I love this guy.” Judge Frank Caprio has something special about him. When you have that, it’s a really good start. I’m not saying this show is going to rewrite the industry but the magic that this guy clearly has — it’s hard to get that. You can’t cast for that.

Can you make money in daytime TV with the audience so fragmented and ratings so low?

Absolutely. When people say there isn’t cash in the market right now, it depends on the show. In the case of “Caught in Providence,” it’s an extremely efficient show to produce. It’s been airing on a local Providence station for years and the clips have become a viral sensation. Our break-even is a very reasonable number; we don’t need to do a 2 rating to achieve that. We’re also smart about how we produce things. We’re not going to produce something for $42 million and hope it gets a 3 rating. We’re going to add a third camera and do some editing. But we’re not going to change the basis of what it is.

“This year we’re going to be learning a lot about the shows that are and aren’t available and what is coming back at NATPE. That makes it a bit of a throwback.”
Ira Bernstein

Does the scale of Sinclair-Tribune give you pause in terms of selling shows? Do you still have market-by-market conversations with buyers or is everything now at the group level?

We do have individual market conversations. In the case of Nexstar they’ve never operated that way even after they’ve consolidated so many other station groups. There are pros and cons to both but, for us, it has worked out very well in each instance with our two biggest shows. In the case of “Wendy Williams,” that’s a Fox group deal. That’s been a great relationship and that show has really worked. In the case of “Family Feud,” we have a base of Fox stations, some CBS, some Tribune, and a lot of Sinclair. In all the big markets we’re completely spread out, which has worked to our advantage. That creates a really vibrant marketplace for us.

Debmar-Mercury made waves a few years ago with the “10/90” comedy development template that called for cable buyers to make big 100-episode bets on sitcoms after a 10-episode test run. Is that still viable in this era of Peak TV?

We’re still looking at the comedy space and innovative ways to approach it.

What do you see on the horizon for the syndication business?

We’re about to come into a time when there are so many shows that are on the bubble that may or may not last until 2018. By 2019 you could be looking at three or four pretty important time periods opening up. There’s only so much more local news that some of these stations can do. There will be a big need for programming and I think Debmar and other studios will address it. It should be an interesting, fun time in the next 12 to 18 months.

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