Borrowed plays from cable such as streamlined programming lineups, along with increased doses of court, informational and live shows on local stations, are the keys to bolstering the health of the syndication business, according to an industry panel TelevisionWeek and AOL presented last week.
Fox Television Stations’ Jack Abernethy, “Live With Regis and Kelly’s” Michael Gelman, Warner Bros.’ Jim Paratore and ICM’s Babette Perry made up TVWeek‘s annual Syndication Roundtable, held Dec. 6 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills as part of the continuing Power Breakfast Series. Melissa Grego, managing editor of TVWeek, moderated.
Following is the first of two parts of an edited transcript of the discussion, which touched on talent development strategies and the appeal of court shows. Part 2, which features the panelists discussing the upcoming National Association of Television Program Executives conference and the general health of the syndication sector, is scheduled to appear in next week’s issue.
TelevisionWeek: One topic on a lot of folks’ minds in terms of syndication is daytime’s eroding audience. Where are the viewers going? Can and do you track it?
Michael Gelman: With hundreds and hundreds of cable stations, even if these cable stations just nibble away at your ratings, especially some key demos, it’s an uphill battle to keep the audience.
But I think in syndication you’ve got an opportunity because it really still is broadcasting. You’re not narrowcasting. You have a certain amount of momentum and you have the promotional capabilities and you’ve got the critical mass necessary to still reach such a large number of people at once.
You can fight it off by giving people what they want, giving them good shows.
TVWeek: Can you make good shows cheaper nowadays in order to cope with falling ratings?
Jack Abernethy: You can do talk shows cheaper, and I think we at Fox are using the Fox News Channel, which has a 24-hour facility, and so from a facilities point of view, just plugging into that is more efficient. And I know out here there are similar efficiencies in some of the Hollywood-type shows. So there are ways to get the costs down from a production standpoint with technology. But that does put more pressure on the whole process, so there’s no way around the economics. But you can use facilities in such a way as to keep your below-the-line cost down.
Jim Paratore: The economics are an issue, and everybody’s struggling with it, trying to figure it out. Everyone’s looking for efficiencies in how we do the shows, the number of weeks of originals. We now have cable windows on first-run shows. As it evolves, everyone’s trying to figure out how to make the math work.
Mr. Abernethy: The share declines over time seem to be a result of a choice. Now the good news for broadcasters and syndicators is at least that everybody’s going to have to get up now and go mano a mano and fight over audience share. … The growth that you’ve seen in cable share over the last 15 years has been indicative of just the fact that more homes [are] passed and distribution has grown, there’s been more channels. Now that the plant is mature, that business changes and they have to compete. They have to spend more money on programming. And I think they have shown that they’re willing to do that in some other dayparts. They haven’t done that in daytime yet, but I would say that’s really the next phase in how that plays out.
TVWeek: Is there something the cable competitors have done in terms of programming that could be adapted to syndication?
Mr. Abernethy: One of the things that cable has done well is focus their channels and focus their lineups. And that doesn’t necessarily mean narrow niches. But when you’re trying to build a cable channel on Channel 68 and you can’t afford to market, you need viewers to see the same thing every time they go on that channel. So that leads to consistent lineups.
I think the problem syndication has is sort of a ’50s, ’60s television notion that you can have seven or eight different program types on one channel.
We had a budget meeting once and we looked at a program lineup, and I can’t remember the details, but we had paid program leading into news, leading into talk, then reality, court, back to reality, sitcom, news.
In prime time it had sports, entertainment, reality, then back to sitcom. We had 11 changes.
Typically, in this business, everyone will say, “Well, heck, it was all women 18 to 49.” Well, no. No one says, “I’m a woman 18 to 49.” Or they never say, people out of the business, “I’m going to watch early fringe.” Did you watch early fringe today? They don’t do that.
And in cable they don’t use those words either. They have channels. People watch channels. So I think one of the advantages that cable has had is focusing. … Somehow there’s this notion in our business you can stick things anywhere and they’ll draw an audience. And I think the challenge for syndication is to create shows for channels.
TVWeek: Jack, can you talk a bit more about building these themed blocks, the flow of what you’re doing at the Fox TV Stations?
Mr. Abernethy: We have eliminated those transitions as best we can so we have court blocks that are more consistent, and we’ve actually done a lot better with them. … In a world where dramas and sitcoms continue to be bid up and go to cable or are not available exclusively to broadcasting in off-net television, stations are going to need to do more and more live day-and-date news and fresh programming, because when you can buy a season of a particular show in DVD and soon that’s available online, then the real advantage for television stations is to be live and to be fresh and to be TiVo-proof.
So I think we’ve made this investment years ago but we’re going to continue to do more live news and information so that when you go on our channels, you expect to see stuff that’s fresh, you expect to see stuff you can’t buy in the store.
If you look at what’s happened in radio, which is probably 10 or 20 years ahead of television, years ago on radio you had a station that probably had sports, news, music and maybe even entertainment back in the ’40s and ’50s, now you don’t. Now you have a whole-news station, an all-sports station, very narrow formats, and they do very well. The all-news stations and the news-talk stations do very, very well.
That’s a trend that’s ultimately going to force us … we’re ultimately going to become, I wouldn’t say “niches,” because we’re not niche businesses, but more focused in what we do. And those stations that do that will be more successful, will be easier to promote and easier to program for.
TVWeek: What else can be taken from the cable world?
Babette Perry: I don’t think our syndication business can survive without radio, cable, network, print, any of those places.
Look at all the successful shows. Look at “Breakfast Time,” for example, and Gelman can attest to this. … It was live. It was spontaneous. It was genuine. It was authentic. Everybody felt like they were in the moment. And as a result of that show you were able to see personalities, and I always say it’s the “Talk Soup” vehicle that Greg Kinnear got when he did “Talk Soup.”
You need to get a vehicle, and most of these vehicles are coming from cable, which is why I use that as a very important tool in developing talent. If we just look at FX and “Breakfast Time” in its beginning stages, from there came Jeff Probst, came Phil Keoghan, who’s on “The Amazing Race,” came Tom Bergeron, came Laurie Hibberd. There’s tons of talent that were developed.
So I always use that analogy of the “Talk Soup” vehicle, because if you have a vehicle, and cable affords the Jon Stewarts and people of Fox cable news to have these distinct personalities, which become the most important element. We can’
t do it without. … It’s not like the old days where we could do a Regis and-not Kelly, but how it was before. Or Oprah, for example. We do not have a business today that allows for us … if we have the next generation, they have to be on cable, they have to be in a major book. We need those other vehicles, I think, to develop for the credibility in syndication right now.
Mr. Gelman: Cable has given a lot of innovations to production and lots of very creative shows, but they also have to work and have to make money, and a show like Babette was referring to on cable, that show was so expensive to produce that you knew it couldn’t last long-term because it was being produced with the amount of money that it would need really network ratings to make a profit.
So you have to be innovative and, I think, in syndication we need to be innovative and you can’t just do copycats, you can’t just do whatever the hot genre is with, you know, the same idea, the same type talent, and expect it to really make a splash and get a rating.
TVWeek: Is there room in the syndication market for an original, organic, from-the-ground-up show that was not spun from something else or that doesn’t fit distinctly into a block? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Ms. Perry: It is a bad thing, but I don’t think we can control it. There are a lot of people, lots of talent, all over the country in these major markets hosting these local morning shows, who have great potential to be our next big talk show host. But I don’t think the business is set up for that. I mean, this business is not about what’s right, it’s about what’s wrong. It basically tells you why something’s not going to work. … We have to really stand behind the talent. I think, as a talent agent, I mean my job is 24/7. I’m a doctor on call and I’m very passionate about what I do and I’m very passionate about the talent that I represent because they’re some of the best people. … It’s unfortunate that we’re not going to see the talent develop, but that is why we do have books that are coming out. Dr. Phil is on “Oprah.” There’s other ways we have, we just have to do it differently. …
Television is really a means to an end right now. The way that we look at it, the big money that our talent are making right now, television is a component that drives all the other businesses. When you look at Carson Kressley from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” that was an incredible show, but as a result of that show it was two book deals, movies, film. I mean TV components, commercial endorsements.
We’re now about branding. I think that’s where we build and that’s where we’re making our money. A lot of folks are like, “These million-dollar contracts are just not coming anymore like they used to five, seven years ago.” So we have to figure out other ways to enhance that situation for the talent.
And as a result, we can’t do it without the television, so I’d rather make less money and just do a deal and get the client exposure on a show, and then build from that and develop the brand, which is really the trend right now.
Mr. Abernethy: We’ve been very aggressive about using our morning shows, which are local up until 9, to promote our syndicated product. We had Montel Williams as the host of a morning show in New York. Leading into his show at 9 was good TV, and the ratings reflected it. So we try as much as possible, since viewers don’t look at TV. I think sometimes people in the business think they watch TV and think, “Oh, Montel, he’s syndicated by someone that’s different than …” Montel is a Channel 5 person, just as everybody else is, so as they’re weaved within the day as part of the channel. Then it makes sense and that’s no different than what I think King World’s doing with Rachael Ray and others.
TVWeek: Let’s talk more about development and what you all are looking for. What is the appeal of court shows?
Mr. Paratore: It’s a simple, repeatable format. It has conflict and resolution in a tight package, and if you have a central host that’s compelling and authentic, it all comes together into something that is pretty formulaic that works.
And I also think that part of what happened is that talk shows in the ’90s went to real extremes and lost their credibility with the viewer. And a lot of the court shows have sort of filled in for that middle ground, because now you sort of have the real high-end “Oprah,” “Phil” and the entertainment shows like “Ellen” and “Regis,” but there used to be a lot of other talk shows in the middle that I think just went a little bit too far and sort of collapsed in on themselves.
And the court shows fill the void there for viewers who are still looking for some entertaining, real-people conflicts that have some credibility and some resolution, and I think that the court shows have sort of filled that void for the time being.
Mr. Abernethy: The court shows, they’re really entertainment. They’re like entertainment reality shows. What was that line when we were doing a marketing campaign? I said, “Let’s just call it and say what it is. Let’s not pretend it’s the Supreme Court.” What was that? “Liars, cheats and losers.” It’s not highbrow entertainment, but it’s entertainment. And it’s not the law, it’s chaos.
Mr. Gelman: We just need to be careful that when a show works and everyone develops more shows like that, there seems to be a cycle where then you oversaturate that genre and then there’s so many losers that everyone moves on to the next genre.
That’s not to say that there’s not going to be a lot of court shows that won’t continue working, or in the reality genre-I mean, reality’s going to be around for a long time. But it’s one of those things where everyone developed a talk show because one or two worked. Then most of them don’t work and then they go on to the next one.
We may be seeing a shift, they’ve been talking about it for years, into some of the game show formats that are becoming less expensive to produce. They just unfortunately really don’t rerun that well, but they can be an inexpensive format to produce, just like talk.
TVWeek: We have been hearing of rejuvenated interest in game shows in prime time, but as far as syndication, Jim and Jack: Game shows? Are they on your mind?
Mr. Paratore: If they’re on Jack’s mind, they’ll be on mine.
TVWeek: Perfect. Jack, what’s on your mind?
Mr. Abernethy: I think there’s room for game shows. I don’t know if on the Fox channels there are. It’s like I was saying before about niches.
Mr. Paratore: Games have never gone away. “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” are still top shows and have not been dislodged for 20-some-odd years now. It’s just hard to get games on the air because in access there are no time periods really for it.
We’ve got sitcoms on the Fox WB stations. You’ve got entertainment magazines populating the affiliates, and when you get into the early-fringe time periods, when you start getting into the game business you have to build blocks, and hour blocks have worked better in those dayparts than trying to find two-it’s hard enough to find one show that works, then all of a sudden you have to find two to fill that hour that work.
So it’s tough, and I also think the lack of the old daytime platform that used to exist on the networks where games were developed, put on the air, the kinks were worked out, it developed a core audience that worked, then it moved off into syndication. And that was a formula that brought some built-in audience with it.
Starting from scratch with games is tough. I mean, they’ve had some success at Buena Vista with “Millionaire,” but it had the prime-time platform, and they were able to bring that down. I think it’s just hard to get traction with a game to build that core audience that you need to establish it as a strip.
TVWeek: Are you considering any spinoffs of your shows, Michael or Jim?
elman: We always keep focused on producing a hit show, and I think that’s what you need to do. We always have our eyes open for new talent that’s out there, but again, just because someone’s a fantastic guest does not always guarantee that they’d be a fantastic host. And people have made that mistake many times, so our eyes are open, but the focus is really on doing the show and making that work.
Mr. Paratore: Like Gelman said, you have to try real hard to produce the shows you’re producing every day. And if there’s an opportunity, we’re all opportunistic and we take advantage of it. Some shows lend themselves more easily to that than others, but there’s no master plan where it’s part of the machinery. It’s just one of those opportunities and if it comes around, you’ll take it.
TVWeek: Babette, when you pitch these days, is it more important now to show you can do the concept cheaply, efficiently?
Ms. Perry: Or you have to be really creative. I have a situation right now where Rubbermaid has committed to me. If I can sell a show, they will commit to 50 percent of the budget. That’s a whole different sell than when you walk in and say, “I have a talent.” I think we have to do the models different. Cristina [Perez], who we’ve just announced is now going to be a new talk show/court show, she comes from Spanish-speaking television. That’s another trend.
TVWeek: We have seen, especially in the court shows, a lot of Hispanic leads in syndication recently. Is that coincidental or by design?
Mr. Paratore: It’s a plus, but you still have to have someone you believe can cross over. I think with Judge [Marilyn] Milian, when Stu [Billet] put her on “People’s Court,” that was the issue. She was Hispanic and had that appeal, but she was also strong enough to carry the show and cross over.
Mr. Gelman: I think there are new ways of developing talent. It used to be, all the local talk shows around the country that we’ve replaced that weren’t doing as well, and those used to be great places to find talent and to develop talent, but now we still have all the cable shows. You still have news and you still have sports and you still have radio. So I think there’s plenty of places to find good talent. I think, sometimes, to make the financial commitment everyone’s looking for, a name-sometimes you do need that to attract the attention, but other times you don’t. You need a breakthrough personality.
TVWeek: How do you differentiate between a great guest who would be a terrible host or a great guest who would be a great host?
Mr. Gelman: Hosting is a real skill, especially on a personality-driven show. … It’s inexpensive programming to turn on the satellite and the camera and put someone in front of the camera and do a show, but it takes a little more than that, and sometimes, when you make it look easy, people think it is easy. And it’s tough to find someone who can host, so most of the time these people who are great guests need some experience doing it. Whether that’s in sports or news or in local broadcast or cable, to take a risk on someone who’s just got a lot of personality, whether it be an actor to do their own show or someone else who’s an entertainer, doesn’t mean that it’s going to work. And usually it doesn’t.
Ms. Perry: It is about authenticity. It’s about likability. It’s about credibility.
TVWeek: Jack, can you talk about developing court show talent?
Mr. Abernethy: While these people are new to television, I think there are a lot of similarities about being a judge oftentimes and coming in every day and reacting on the fly that is unlike, say, other professions that get into television-health people, for example, or psychologists or whatever. Very similar, so I think the success we’ve had with “Judge Alex,” with “Cristina” coming up, you can tell that you’re halfway there already, and then it’s just a matter of practice. The other thing is the formats are fairly well set, unlike talk shows, so it makes that easier, although talent is talent.
TVWeek: Were there any sort of rude awakenings Kelly Ripa had to adjust to that you helped her with, Michael?
Mr. Gelman: She was not a broadcaster. She was someone who had a lot of personality and had been on TV for a lot of years, but it is different, and you have to be very careful … It worked for us because we had Regis, who really is a long-term host. I don’t know, even now, Kelly has worked very hard to get to where she is in hosting it, and now she does it on her own when Regis isn’t around, but at the beginning it would have been very tough because she’s reacting to him.
Over the years, now that she’s done it hundreds of hours, she can operate on her own, but having the two people really made it work for us.
TVWeek: Where else are you looking for new ideas?
Mr. Paratore: It’s harder than it looks. Obviously now everyone’s looking to a lot of the foreign markets to see what formats work there. But just because you’re copying a format from another market and it worked in one place, I think it gives a lot of executives something to visualize because to put your neck and your company’s money on the line for something that is just in your imagination, it really takes a lot of guts.
So it’s tough to do that, but I think there are concepts that people come up with out of thin air that are just terrific, and in the live and in the reality area, some of them can be done very inexpensively. So a lot of times it is really believing, having a concept that you really believe will work and then going with it.
Ms. Perry: On the talent front, I mean, local market for sure. I think some of the best talent is coming out of local market TV. Especially some of the morning shows that we’re watching. Radio. We look at radio and even broadband. With all these Internet shows popping up, we have to at least see what those are. The books … the book that came out, “He’s [Just] Not That Into You,” was on Oprah and now it’s going to be developed as a show. I think we have lots of places to look, but just going back to Jack for a moment, our hardest part right now is real estate, and Fox is one of the places that we have real estate, which is why there could be more creativity and it’s fabulous, but there’s nowhere else to go.
TVWeek: Are you concerned about managing the line when it comes to product placement in the face of added economic pressure?
Mr. Gelman: We’ve done a lot of promotions with different companies, but I think you have to be very careful how you do it because you don’t want to really muck up the whole credibility of the show by sliding in things that are really not obvious. When we do something, whether we’re giving away a home-we do a promotion with KB Home- we’re saying what it is and there’s no lack of trust there. Those things, some of these big promotions we’ve done with General Motors and with KB Home and just our daily contests, it’s pretty obvious what it is. But we try to keep away from real product placement because I think, on our show, we don’t want to screw with the trust that we have with our audience.
Mr. Paratore: That’s crucial. Go back to when Rosie O’Donnell made a big deal out of a Tickle Me Elmo doll and they sold off the shelves. It was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. You know, of course, our merchandising people were down in my office the next day going, “I’ve got the Tickle Me Taz.” But to have Rosie talk about the Tickle Me Taz wouldn’t have worked. She cared. It was authentic. You have to keep that on these shows.
When New York-based Mr. Gelman was named executive producer of the morning talk show now known as “Live With Regis and Kelly” in 1987, he became the youngest producer of a national talk show. Since then, some 70 talk shows have come and gone. In addition to overseeing basically every aspect of t
he show, distributed by Buena Vista Television, he often appears on the set during “Live’s” host chat.
As head of broadcasting and news at talent agency ICM, Ms. Perry represents a wide range of on-air talent in cable, network, local news and syndication. She represents such veterans of the syndication airwaves as Tom Bergeron, Arthel Neville and Cristina Perez, the star of upcoming Twentieth Television show “Cristina’s Court.” Ms. Perry, based in Los Angeles, also represents television producers and directors.
Los Angeles-based Mr. Paratore is president of Telepictures, which produces such syndicated strips as “The Tyra Banks Show,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Extra.” He’s also executive VP of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, one of the industry’s largest distributors of first-run and off-network programming. One of Warner Bros.’ next big off-net pushes is the launch of “Two and a Half Men.”
New York-based Mr. Abernethy was one of the chief architects of the Fox News Channel. A year ago he was named CEO of Fox Television Stations, the unit of News Corp. that incorporates the television stations and Twentieth Television, the production and distribution arm. His group accounts for more than 25 percent of News Corp.’s operating income. The station group is also one of the biggest buyers of both off-network and first-run fare.