Last week, in Part One of our annual syndication roundtable, TelevisionWeek’s panel of experts, who this year represent differing aspects of the syndie business, debated the erosion of the daytime audience, competition from cable and the impact of consolidation. The panel also discussed the evolving definitions of a hit.
This week, in Part Two, we continue our edited transcript of the discussion. TelevisionWeek Editorial Director and Publisher Chuck Ross led the discussion, which moved onto such subjects as: how the National Association of Television Program Executives annual confab is finding its rhythm; the increasing importance of patience, timing and strategy in developing and launching new first-run shows; and the future of advertisers’ involvement in syndication content.
Editor Alex Ben Block, News Editor Melissa Grego and Senior Editor Chris Pursell also participated in the panel, which comprised: Linda Finnell, senior VP of programming and development for NBC Enterprises; David Garfinkle, president of independent production company Renegade 83; John Reardon, VP and general manager of KTLA-TV in Los Angeles and a regional VP for Tribune Broadcasting; John Weiser, executive VP for Sony Pictures Television; Steve Wohl, ICM packaging agent; and Terry Wood, executive VP of programming for Paramount Domestic Television.
TelevisionWeek: As we sit here we’re about a month away from NATPE, which is not what it once was.What are your perspectives on the conference?
Terry Wood: It’s sort of found its rhythm right now about how it best serves everyone. I mean, it seems to be working. I think it’s working for everyone for what it is and for what it’s grown into. I’ll certainly use it as a chance to talk to those stations who bought `The Insider’ and tell them even more about the show than they knew a few months ago. … I think it’s gone from being just a pure sales-based thing on the floor to really about reconnecting on those relationships, reminding them why they bought the show, where it’s going, and telling them more, sharing more than probably we would have in the past. Because now it’s really down to the nuts and bolts of the content. … I’ll use it as a chance to make them feel closer to the product and that they can sort of have a big sigh of relief, if you will, that, `Oh, they have a plan. They know what they’re doing. They know where they’re taking this.’
TVWeek: Given that it takes basically five deals to get a show on the air and cleared in so much of the country, is it really economically worth it?
Ms. Wood: Everyone has to make that decision individually. For us it is because there is still some business to do, and again, I think the relationship part of it is important right now. The business has changed so much, and you are looking to each other for, you know, answers, for comfort, for, `Hey, what are you up to these days?’
John Weiser: I agree. I think NATPE is finding its rhythm. Everything is cyclical. Certainly, there were a couple of tougher years than this upcoming year, which has gained momentum back in the marketplace. Clearly, the pure nature of buying and selling at NATPE has changed forever. When you look at `The Insider’ or `Jane Pauley’ or `Ryan Seacrest,’ these shows were sold before even this year’s shows debuted, and they were sold as replacement shows, which created a whole other set of challenges and questions, potentially. But just the pure buying and selling nature of NATPE, what [NATPE President and CEO] Rick Feldman did successfully was reinvent the importance of what the conventions are about, which is a lot of connecting, and not to undervalue the relationships that in our day-to-day living, in Los Angeles it’s a challenge to meet with everybody in the marketplace consistently.
TVWeek: From a station’s point of view, does it still make a lot of sense?
John Reardon: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s, as John said, it’s cyclical, and I think connecting is very important for all of us.
Steve Wohl: It used to be a lot more fun. But it is really about connecting, because there’s so many people you need to see, from cable to the international community. You know, just a place to go to reconnect. I mean, it used to be great back in the day, where [there were] 15,000 people on the floor and in a couple of days you could see everyone you need. Now you need to really set meetings and be more diligent about seeing these people.
Linda Finnell: This is only our third NATPE as a company, and it really is about making those connections. And I can’t say it enough: It is about listening to what the stations want. What do they need? How can we help them? For us to go in there and not listen to them would be a big mistake.
TVWeek: John Weiser, you have said that a lot of shows these days are `replacement shows.’ Can you elaborate?
Mr. Weiser: A lot of vertically integrated companies will bring shows out … to replace shows that haven’t gone on the air yet. I think the greatest challenge for people like John [Reardon] at a television station, when a show looks good coming in the door, but you haven’t even seen what you’ve already bought, that’s different, a new type of pressure on people running television stations to make decisions where the time doesn’t best serve his needs. So as a company we’ve always really waited until the new shows debut and to that end, also, we produce pilots for our shows.
TVWeek: Would you say patience is more important than ever in the first-run business?
Mr. Weiser: Patience is important. And timing is everything. …`Pyramid’ was ready almost a year before we actually brought it out. With the emergence of `Millionaire’ and what was going on at the time with `Weakest Link,’ we saw the game genre as a viable genre, so that’s when we brought it out. With a show like even `Judge Hatchett,’ which has been on the air for four years, we’re patient with it because we’re very high on the quality of the show and the fact that it’s family [court] instead of small claims court, and [by] being patient we’re up 20 percent, which in a down marketplace is phenomenal, and it’s a show that’s growing in the right directions. So I think you have to be patient and keep the product on the air if you believe in it. And a product coming into the marketplace you have to time it right or you won’t be successful.
Ms. Wood: I think being very strategic, you know, because we know now exactly what we want to do with this show, with `The Insider.’ And we have this incredible franchise that’s been on the air 23 years to be able to put a piece of `The Insider’ on the air daily on `ET’ and condition the viewer to the fact that this is going to be a very powerful hour when it hits in the major markets. It will help us tremendously in the execution of the show. So it’s patience and strategy.
TVWeek: Are newsmagazines harder to launch?
Ms. Wood: Not if you’ve been doing them a long time, because we understand the time period so well in access, and we know what it takes. You know, there are a lot of people that go on the air, and Linda, you and I both have news backgrounds, so you know this is like, you know, you go on the air and you’re not sure what the show is, you can’t describe it, and that’s when you know you’re in trouble. But I think that this show for us is very focused.
TVWeek: Is there some relationship that first-run syndication could be having with cable that it’s not?
Ms. Wood: I don’t think so. I think we try to take advantage of it where it makes sense. I mean, clearly, we do, you know. `ET on MTV’ is a good example of how, not only was it within our family, it was a very smart thing for us to do to extend our brand and roll very young demos and not necessarily go to MTV and say, `We’re doing this.’ I mean, we had to sell them on this and why it would work for them. And now it’s a very highly rated show for them on their weekends. And it’s perfect for us because we a have a promo in there for the daily `Entertainment Tonight,’ so that made perfect sense to do immediately. … It has to be the right fit. So I don’t think those come in every day. You
don’t see them all the time. You try to grow them internally. And we have some ideas that we’re working on now that’ll we’ll be doing that with cable and with our station group. I think it just all depends on the idea and whether it works for them.
TVWeek: Linda, is that what you’ve done with `Access Hollywood,’ in terms of extending its brand?
Ms. Finnell: You know, it’s the same kind of thing: What makes the most sense for that? And `Access’ is producing for Bravo. It’s producing for VH1. We’re getting ready to extend our brand into there, and it’s just like Terry said. You have to go in there and say, `This is why this show will work.’
TVWeek: Again, this is vertical integration–Bravo is part of NBC; VH1 and Paramount are Viacom companies. Something of the `ET’ nature would have made sense on E! also, but that’s not part of the family, right?
Ms. Wood: But MTV is not trying to bet what `ET’ is every day, so it wouldn’t have made us much sense to go do what we do and put it on E! Because we were still doing something where it wouldn’t hurt our stations. Their product that they had on five days a week, by having this on the weekend, I don’t think we would have gone to E! to begin with. But you know, I think an interesting point that we have to think about now is will we also be going to cable and saying, `Hey, you have a successful brand on cable. Would you like to bring that to syndication?’
Mr. Weiser: We did that with `Ripley’s’ last year … it was the No. 1 show on Turner.
Ms. Wood: You’re going to see more of that now, but, I mean, even with original product. Just taking the brand and producing an original version of it just for syndication.
TVWeek: David, I understand your point about the problem of consolidation, but there are a lot of cable networks. That’s got to be an opportunity for you, right?
David Garfinkle: It is an opportunity. Again, for me, you know, it’s all about ownership, and in cable you have the same issue. And so you have the lower license fees that you’re working with, and it’s just as difficult to produce an hour of television for cable as it is for network, and the license fee is a third or less. … We have a few shows right now. I have one with MTV. I have another one with Spike. I have one with VH1. … We’re in business, in the cable business as well. … I don’t mean to be the complainer here. … There’s a lot of opportunities as well for people like me; you just have to find that type of niche in the marketplace. It becomes a little more difficult. … I think that when you have these five companies that are so big, they’re going to move slower. … I’ll give you an interesting example. When we sold the back-end rights to `Blind Date’ to Spike, I was asked to go to this meeting, and it just so happened that that day [`Blind Date’ distributor] Universal announced that they lost $1.7 billion, I think it was, for the quarter or something. … I think our deal was like a $30 million deal … which you would think is pretty good, but when the company announced that, for the quarter, I think it was, that they lost $1.7 billion, you realize that they’re not going to focus on a $30 million deal.
TVWeek: Steve, with cable are there more opportunities for you as well?
Mr. Wohl: There are really more opportunities, a lot of places to sell. For a long time the cable operators were reticent about bringing their hits to syndication because they might dilute the appointment in television that they want to create on their networks. So I don’t know what’s going to happen.
TVWeek: News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch is going to be a game changer when he gets DirectTV. Clearly, he’s a very serious player, and he’s going to cause the cable guys to rethink a lot of what they’re doing.
Mr. Garfinkle: But even in the cable business, you look at the definition of `hits’ … it’s such a different definition. A show like `Queer Eye’ had for Bravo, which is a huge hit, has a few million viewers on Bravo. And that’s a huge hit for them. Even for … if you go for prime-time UPN or prime-time WB, that is a big loser, so you know, the game, the playing fields are so different.
TVWeek: How does the fact that advertising revenues aren’t what they used to be affect the resources you have to produce your shows?
Mr. Weiser: We look at that separate from when we develop shows. Clearly, the money coming in is critical to moving forward, but in the creation of shows we focus on developing the show for how we’re going to bring in the best audience, the best cast, the best production team we can bring in. And if you don’t have those blinders on, the process for developing a show is not maximized. So they’re completely separate areas, although the same business. You don’t wait to see what a show’s going to bring in before you decide if you’re going to go after it, so to speak.
Ms. Wood: You have to look at your relationships with the advertisers that you have. Certainly the ones that you’ve been in business with a long time. And, constantly now start to think about, as we’re looking at DVRs, how do we keep those partnerships strong, and what do we do to grow that relationship and not be worried about people skipping through their commercials? I mean we have to be very smart about how to grow that relationship and how we bring them into the development of shows and how we grow those shows. You can’t just sit there, and you can no longer just sit there and say `I’m selling ad time.’ I think you have to look at it in a different way and be smart and creative.
TVWeek: We have a story about what NBC is doing with `Starting Over.’
Ms. Finnell: It’s the same thing with `Jane Pauley.’ Two weeks ago I had a conference call with one of the major advertisers, talking about `The Jane Pauley Show’ and what our plans are and what content was going to be and how we were going to develop it, and so on and so forth … Last week I was in New York, having another meeting for `Starting Over’ with one of the major advertisers. How can we work together? What is it that we can do that’s not going to take the creative and thin out our creative but keep our creative very real and very true to what the brand is. But how can we bring in the advertisers? How can we all work together? How can we keep the advertisers happy? How can we keep the producers happy? More importantly, how can we keep the viewers happy?
TVWeek: How do you guys feel being on the creative side and now having to deal with advertiser relationships?
Ms. Finnell: There are some ideas that just are not going to fly, but there are other ideas that we can use, that we can integrate into the show and it’s not horrible, it doesn’t look bad, and it feels right for that show.
Ms. Wood: I don’t think you wait for them to come to you and say, `Gee, can I be in your program?’ I think you have to be proactive, and you have to go in there and sit down and say, `Look, here’s what I’m comfortable with. Here’s what works for my show.’ … You’ve got to be proactive.
Mr. Garfinkle: We all know we need to accept that. It’s a part of where the future of our business is going, and to not embrace that, I think, is silly. … When you’re integrating these products … it has to come organically or it will hurt the creative world, which eventually will hurt everyone. So I think that there’s certain shows that it’s easier to do that than others.
TVWeek: Steve, what luck have you had in bringing advertisers in at the very beginning?
Mr. Wohl: It’s happening more and more. When we did the Tyra Banks model show for UPN … that was chock full of sponsor opportunity because it was perfect for, you know, fashion and makeup and all that. But I think the big issue is two things: one, creatively, how does it work where it is seamless, because when it’s not done right it’s glaring and the audience gets turned off very quickly. And the other part of it is, on a business model, who controls that because, at least on the network level, they want it to go toward bottom line, toward production and, of course, the clients and I want it to come this way. So where do you fi
nd that happy medium, where it’s also, for them … they’re taking the big risk of investing in the show, but yet if you meet certain rating thresholds there should be money coming back to the producers.
Mr. Weiser: A lot of it has to do with just maintaining a constant dialogue. At the end of the day you need to meet their needs, just as you need to try to reach viewers.
Mr. Garfinkle: But those needs are, a lot of the time, very different. And it is a very difficult thing to do, and because you have so many people who really have different needs, and anytime you have that and you try to bring it all together, and there are certain shows where it’s going to work, like this `Extreme Makeover,’ I mean, it just makes a lot of sense. But then, there are certain shows, you know, prime-time dramas or … where it’s just not going to work. And so it’s just like anything where there’s an opportunity, then great. I mean, even in `American Idol’ it’s awkward.
TVWeek: Is any of that a red flag on the station level?
Mr. Reardon: Here in the entertainment business we want to provide to the audience whatever is appealing to them at the end of the day. If it’s seamless, that’s wonderful. But people are interested in dramas, and a lot of this stuff is not going to make any sense. But technology is what it is and we all have to deal with it. The other interesting thing that we are talking about is cable and broadcasting and the cable models. … In cable you’ve got a dual-revenue stream there, and that creates a different model. That’s a model that maybe we all want to look at as we go forward to participate in more at our level so we can continue to provide the funds that we need for buying.
TVWeek: So would you like the operator to give you money?
Mr. Reardon: You have to look at the value that broadcasting brings to the world. You’re talking about 50 percent of the audience; it’s still 50 percent of the audience. And that’s the reality of it. And it’s really all your work and our work together that’s driven that, and I think that someday that model’s got to adjust a little bit for us to continue to give you opportunities to go forward. And that’s really where this model is going.
TVWeek: What a lot of broadcasters have done in the past is use their retransmission consent to launch other cable networks.
Mr. Reardon: We have done that also. We have Food Network. We have WGN-Cable. I’m just looking further out here. This is my perspective, but it’s … you’re just looking at a model that’s different. If you want to continue to produce good shows, the model that’s driven on an ad-driven model is a very interesting model, but it is what it is.
Broadcasting is still doing a phenomenal job. Local news, shows that we’re delivering for you guys, it’s the model that you’re basing this thing on. So it’s a good business, but I think we ought–and again this is just me talking–you’re talking about cable companies that control the world and everything else, so it’s a lot of work.
TVWeek: How is the pitch-and-development process going to change, given the changes in the syndie world?
Mr. Wohl: I think it’s more year-round, but if you don’t hit these guys at the right time they’re not going to be interested in what you have to say. So you have to pick your shots. Although there is more of this around-the-year development season. And I think for what David and I are dealing with, in terms of all the other markets, I mean, the reality business on the networks levels is completely year-round. Obviously, the summer is a big time for the network business, and cable people are always receptive to new ideas.
Ms. Finnell: I agree with Steve, but I would say it doesn’t matter when you walk through my door, if it’s a great idea I’m gonna listen to it. It doesn’t matter what day of the year it is. … We all talk about different kinds of business. I think there’s absolutely something to be said about maybe we shouldn’t launch all of our shows in the fall. I mean, maybe January is a good launch.
Mr. Garfinkle: [Fox is] really developing all-year-round, that’s what we’re finding. And I think that’s interesting that they’re doing that. I think what they’re doing is really smart. But for us, we are fortunate in that because there is cable, there is network and there is syndication. We pitch all-year-round.
TVWeek: John, on the station side, do you expect changes in the launch pattern?
Mr. Reardon: I think what you’re going to see change now is People Meters. We have People Meters now that are coming on in L.A., so you’re going to want to have current programming as much as you can all the way through the year.
TVWeek: So you’re OK launching things at different times of year?
Mr. Reardon: Yeah, I think the game’s going to change dramatically because you’re going to have overnights that are really demographically based as opposed to the four major sweeps, and really, 99 percent of your business is done on a demographic.
TVWeek: Does that mean you’re going to perhaps have less patience and want to yank something because you’re going to get to see the demos on a nightly basis?
Mr. Reardon: I think you’ve just got to go with the marketplace. The marketplace will determine. You’re not by yourself, you know. You’re dealing with the market. The measurement is changing. It’s changing across all of my competition. It’s changing for cable now. Cable now has to deal with the reality too … Low-rated cable stations that were somewhat dashed, they’d assume what the ratings were, but now they get to live with what that number’s going to be, whether it’s a 0.1 on a regular basis. It’s going to show up on the overnights. So you’re going to have to play it by ear. … From a first-run standpoint, you’re going to want a first-run program in the summertime, like Fox is doing. I think that’s going to change.
TVWeek: John Weiser, do you expect changes with the People Meters to change your business?
Mr. Weiser: No.
TVWeek: Any of you?
Ms. Wood: No, I think you’re just going to watch it, because it’s something new, it’s a new way. But I don’t … we don’t look at it now with the shows that we produce. That is just the ratings part. We can’t. `ET’ is a year-round show. We can’t survive that way.
Mr. Garfinkle: Also, we’re in the 90-percent-failure business. I mean, so everyone accepts that and knows that. So if you’re taking that off, you’re going to put something else on that has a 90 percent failing rate as well.