In Depth

Adalian Column: Time to Stop Playing It Safe in Syndication

Sometimes it seems as if the death knell for syndication has been sounding since the days of “Donahue.”

Hand-wringers have been writing off the genre for years, declaring that daytime is dead or that off-net half-hours are endangered due to the drought of hit sitcoms on the broadcast networks.

The only time the naysayers take a break from their bashing, it seems, is to open up a line of attack on the viability of the broadcast networks.

And yet, on any given weeknight, more Americans watch an episode of “Wheel of Fortune” than tune in to “Ugly Betty.” “Oprah,” even in an off week, generates three times the viewership of “Mad Men.”

More important, both “Wheel” and “Oprah” generate millions upon millions of dollars in profit for the companies involved in their production and distribution. Same goes for anyone fortunate enough to have a piece of “Entertainment Tonight” or “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” or “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”

As another NATPE gets under way in Las Vegas, amid the perennial reports of low attendance and sparse sales, here’s something worth remembering: Syndication isn’t dead.

Creativity, boldness and the entrepreneurial ethos that once defined the format? Well, that’s another matter.

Those traits certainly still exist in the syndie world. You can see it in the loving care Sony invests in its two game-show treasures, “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” The studio is forever perfecting each show, adding another wrinkle every year to keep viewers on board.

And while I’d personally rather watch an endless loop of MTV’s “Bromance” than sit through five minutes of Telepictures’ “TMZ,” there’s no denying Harvey Levin’s highly caffeinated half-hour has reinvented the notion of a newsmagazine.

But these are the exceptions. For the most part, the same corporate pressures that threaten to turn primetime into one giant product-placement opportunity have already sapped syndication of much of its mojo.

Not convinced? Just try counting up the number of judge shows currently in daytime. There is no surer sign of syndication’s apocalypse now than the gaggle of gavel-wielding goons currently populating the airwaves.

I don’t object to the notion of cranky ex-jurists dispensing fake justice five days a week. Indeed, the mere sound of the original “People’s Court” theme song triggers a warm wave of nostalgia for many after-school afternoons spent watching Judge Wapner scowl at scofflaws. And Judge Judy, TelevisionWeek’s syndication personality of the year, is a legitimate TV icon.

But it cannot possibly be a good thing that News Corp.’s KCOP in Los Angeles devotes a full 50% of its 9-5 daytime schedule to a collection of courtroom shows, many hosted by folks I wouldn’t trust to tell me whether I should bag my groceries with paper or plastic.

Imitation is the sincerest form of television. But even CBS at least tries to develop a few shows each year that don’t contain dead bodies.

There’s a reason, of course, that the syndication business has largely stopped trying to think even a little bit outside the box. Innovation, after all, carries with it risk, and syndication circa 2009 seems to be all about playing it safe.

The big distributors have locked up long-term deals ensuring their established successes remain firmly entrenched for years at a time. That’s great news if your name is Mary Hart or Kelly Ripa, but it takes away most of the incentive for anybody else to roll the dice on an up-and-coming new talk show host.

Likewise, local stations—most of which are now controlled by giant companies—no longer have the appetite to invest in daytime programming, once the backbone of first-run syndication. Ratings in the morning and afternoon hours have collapsed, and with them the whole idea of stations paying cash for first-run programming.

All this has forced syndicators to fund most shows through barter ad sales. With only one highly variable revenue stream, it’s not surprising that the new mandate in syndication seems to be, “You’ve got to save money to make money.” It also explains why certain court shows air two or three times a day in some markets: Repeats are more cost-effective than new episodes of a less proven show.

Given our nation’s current economic crisis—a downturn that has hit media companies particularly hard—it’s unlikely that the short-sighted thinking of the syndie business will change any time soon. The only gambles taken in Las Vegas this week will be well removed from the Mandalay Bay convention hall.

Yet once things stabilize in the world at large, the Peter Chernins and Leslie Moonveses of the world should authorize their studios and stations to start risking some money in the syndication business.

After all, Oprah Winfrey will eventually retire from the talk show grind. Mary Hart’s legs will one day grow weary. Alex Trebek can’t go on forever knowing all the answers.

When these eventualities finally come to pass, there’s going to be plenty of opportunity for new shows and new personalities to follow in the footsteps of these legends. And I doubt the next Oprah will be wearing judge’s robes.

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A further thought on NATPE. It’s been more than five years since I last attended syndication’s big show. I still have fond memories of Wolfgang Puck whipping up some exotic creation, or Roger King walking around his ginormous King World booth with a huge grin permanently attached to his face.

My expectations this year are diminished, to say the least.

Many companies have cut back their commitment to NATPE. Some have abandoned the show altogether.

I give NATPE chief Rick Feldman a lot of credit for trying to salvage this institution. He hasn’t tried to hide his organization’s challenges, or gloss over the cold realities confronting everyone in the TV business.

But as planning for future NATPEs gets under way, I’ve got one suggestion: Move the show to Los Angeles—as soon as possible.

Proximity might not convince those currently sitting on the sidelines to suddenly shell out the big bucks needed to host a booth at a trade show. But without having to worry about airport security or long cab lines, it’s likely that many more industry players would at least attend NATPE, ensuring the show’s reputation as the business’s premier schmoozefest.

NATPE in L.A. doesn’t have the same romantic appeal as a show in Las Vegas or New Orleans. But sometimes, being boring isn’t such a bad idea.