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Sold on the Future

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Fred Reynolds, president and CEO of the Viacom Television Stations Group, recently talked with TelevisionWeek’s Michele Greppi about his views on topics ranging from the health of the first-run syndication business to the prospects of the new “Living It Up! With Ali & Jack” show to why he’s looking forward to the midseason debut of Twentieth Television’s Ryan Seacrest show.
Mr. Reynolds believes the Viacom Group’s clout derives from the size of the markets in which it has stations, and not from the size of the station group itself. He has overseen the country’s largest group of network-owned stations (20 CBS stations, 18 UPN stations and one independent) for more than two years.
Television Week: How would you sum up the syndication business these days from the perspective of a buyer of any size?
Fred Reynolds: I would break it into two pieces. One is the first-run syndication. I think there are a lot of great ideas out there. We have the new Ryan Seacrest show coming out that is unique. And last year it was the `Dr. Phil’ show. I think the first-run syndication market is still vibrant and strong. Creativity still is the driving force. And all the big syndicators, both those that are part of Viacom and those that are not part of Viacom, I think continue to come up with fresh new ideas. While there are always new talk shows and all that stuff, I think there are different slants now than maybe there were before, so the syndicators are investing in talent and they are investing in new ideas. I would say that part of the business is good and, at least from a buyer’s standpoint, that’s what I think their role is: to come up with fresh new ideas that will attract a lot of viewers and will be welcomed by advertisers.
TVWeek: Will the Ryan Seacrest show be this year’s `Dr. Phil’?
Mr. Reynolds: I hope so. He launches in January. I think he’s an extremely talented young man and obviously he has notoriety in a positive way from `American Idol.’ I live in L.A.-well, actually I live on a plane, but when I’m on the ground in L.A. I always listen to his show. He’s a disc jockey on [STAR 98.7 FM]. He’s very talented, very funny, and I think he really does capture kind of the 12- to 34-year-old’s kind of thinking. L.A. is, I think, the cultural starting point for a lot of fads. I think it’s really pretty cool. He seems to have really good backing for the show: the producers, showrunners and all that stuff. He’s a real savvy, smart young man and I think he will speak to that demographic.
Then, on the off-net part of the business, particularly off-net sitcoms, it’s a little tougher going, because there are less comedies on the networks these days because of the reality shows. And reality shows will have a hard time going into syndication because you kind of already know. Even though I guess you could say the same with a comedy, I think a comedy travels better. I can see a gazillion reruns of `Seinfeld’ and still laugh. There’s just less available and therefore there are going to be some holes in the product line where you used to put comedies in. I think that’s changing but certainly for the ’01-’02 and ’02-’03 seasons there were less comedies launched. It looks like this season, the ’03-’04, there will be more.
TVWeek: We’ve heard much about how size would matter in giving large station groups the edge in landing the choice syndicated fare. How has real life measured up to the theoretical-or the knee-jerk, if you prefer-scenarios?
Mr. Reynolds: Again, I think the most important part is being in the biggest markets. If you just had five or 10 stations, but they were all in the top five or 10 markets, you’d probably have as much leverage as anyone that has five times that number of stations in smaller markets. So we’re really just about the same as when we were CBS alone. We had Markets 1 through 7, where we had owned-and-operated stations, and then we have Detroit and with UPN we have Atlanta. So I think it’s added modestly because you can get more stations done at one time, but I still think as a syndicator-and I’m not one of them-you’re going to come to us. When you want to launch `Dr. Phil,’ you would launch it with us, vs., say, Sinclair, because Sinclair, not to knock Sinclair, is just not in the Top 10 markets and we are. And I’m sure they would go to ABC O&Os and NBC O&Os and Fox O&Os for the same reason. But I don’t think that’s really changed now that we have 39 stations vs. when we had 20 stations. It’s still pretty much the same. I have noticed as you get down to the smaller markets, let’s say under 50. We could say, `We’ll clear your show in Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, Columbus, Norfolk, New Orleans, Austin,’ and that has some value. … But that’s no different than what Sinclair has, because they have a gazillion stations, too.
TVWeek: Have you noticed any change in attitudes toward the Viacom Group’s size as time passes and people see how big-group status impacts day-to-day business?
Mr. Reynolds: We have been in the top six markets for quite a while. Those markets are important to launch any show, whether we had 16 stations total or 35. But regardless, I don’t see any difference in how the syndicators perceive us now vs. years ago. They still treat us equally tough in negotiations.
TVWeek: On most of your new acquisition deals, can you run the program on either your CBS or your UPN stations?
Mr. Reynolds: In all eight of our duopoly markets we have the right to move the product across [station lines], and in the case of L.A. we can move it [from KCBS-TV to non-affiliated] KCAL also. But, yes, we do demand that right, and we get it.
TVWeek: Is there any way in which size has proved to be a problem, or potential problem, in terms of shopping for syndicated programming?
Mr. Reynolds: No. No.
TVWeek: There’s not a situation in which dealing with you would reduce a distributor’s leverage in some markets?
Mr. Reynolds: Again, I don’t think that has changed, because I think the most important markets are the Top 10, so I think we constantly fight to be the launch [pad]. [Distributors] are going to be able to go to the Big 4 [network-owned groups] for sure, and probably Tribune, which also has stations in a good many of the Top 10.
TVWeek: How do you see the `large station group with studio sibling’ model evolving in the future?
Mr. Reynolds: Again, I don’t think it’s part of having been part of the Viacom merger, at least on the CBS side,. It was really the combination of TV stations, but the studio was not a key factor that had us saying, `Wow, we have all these TV stations and now we’ll have a studio that can program it.’ I think CBS has always, whether it’s Leslie [Moonves] or Mel [Karmazin], said we’ve got to get the best product the viewer wants to see and if it comes from a sister company, great, and if it doesn’t, great too. I don’t think you could ever lock yourself into being an output for one studio. I don’t think the studio element really matters one way or the other, to be quite honest.
TVWeek: On the other hand, Twentieth Television and Fox have talked about the prospect of doing a lab sort of thing to develop programming and test it in major markets.
Mr. Reynolds: Again, I think great ideas come from all over. It’s an industry that’s idea-driven, and studios tend to pay the different writers and whomever that come up with these ideas to be on retainer, I guess is the right way of saying it For our 39 TV stations, I love when they come from Paramount. I love when they come from King World. But I love just as much when Warner Bros. or Buena Vista delivers or Columbia Sony delivers a great program. We are absolutely indifferent.
TVWeek: Made any one-on-one wagers on the head-to-head competition between `Living It Up! With Ali & Jack’ and `Live With Regis and Kelly’?
Mr. Reynolds: No. I think `Living It Up!’ is another creative first-run new show, talent-driven, with Ali [Wentworth] and Jack [Ford]. I think it’s going to have a really good chance, but Regis [Philbin] has been in that spot for 20 years or whatever it’s been. I think we’ve got to be patient. We’r
e going to be patient. I think if I’m a syndicator or Ali and Jack, knowing that the CBS stations are behind the show [means] we’re going to have a good run in that 9 a.m. [ET] time period. We’re not going to give up quickly. It’s going to be a tough battle. Regis is the king-no pun intended. `Martha [Stewart Living]’ did a good job for us in that time period because it was sort of counterprogramming. This is certainly more of a direct competitor to `Live,’ and we think it has a lot of growth and we’re going to stick with it.
But it would be OK if Regis decides to retire. That would be fine. That would be cool.