Syndication Roundtable: Syndie’s Freshness Factor

Dec 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Finding the right moment to cut losses on a failing show is not always easy, and some of syndication’s top minds disagreed on just when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em during an industry panel presented by TelevisionWeek and AOL this month.

As part of the continuing Power Breakfast series, TVWeek‘s annual Syndication Roundtable was held Dec. 6 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The panelists were Jack Abernethy, CEO of Fox Television Stations; Babette Perry, head of broadcasting and news at talent agency International Creative Management; Michael Gelman, executive producer of Buena Vista’s “Live With Regis and Kelly”; and Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures Productions and executive VP of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. Melissa Grego, managing editor of TVWeek, moderated.

Following is the second of two parts of an edited transcript of the discussion, which also touched on the cyclical nature of the syndication business, why the future looks bright for live programs in syndication, the potential impact of broadband on syndication and the significance of the annual National Association of Television Program Executives conference.

TelevisionWeek: Does the marketplace today afford projects enough time to grow?

Babette Perry: I don’t think we have the luxury of time. I always admire Jim-I always call it the “Jenny Jones syndrome,” that it had problems and he retooled it. He made it work and he stayed the course. I think that’s the most frustrating thing … for a talent agent or talent today, and producers, is that we don’t have the luxury of time. If we had stayed the course with a couple of shows that were canceled, would that have been a success story? And in many cases I think the answer is yes.

But we’re now in a business where it’s about money. The most creative shows that we’ve ever seen in television cost a lot of money and may not support what the audience wants, because everything is a cost measure.

Jack Abernethy: Unfortunately, when you have broad-based distribution vehicles like we do, you really don’t have time. You have a lot of money invested in these time periods and you’ve got to succeed pretty quickly. … Cable has that luxury. They have lower ratings, they have time, they can test people on the air. They’re not relying on focus groups, which can be unreliable. … You have to have quick success in broadcasting in syndication.

Jim Paratore: The whole issue of time, I think sometimes that gets overstated.

I think when we put shows on the air, we usually know pretty quickly whether or not it’s going to work, and I have found that if you have something that is viable, the stations and the producers usually know it and they stick with it, and if not, they don’t.

In fact I think there’s been a trend in our business the last few years to keep shows on the air longer than they probably would have stayed on the air in a more competitive marketplace. And I don’t think that is good for the broadcast business. Over time that does have a cumulative effect of pushing viewers further away from broadcasting, moving them over to cable.

So I’m much more of a believer of, you take your shot, you get on the air. And I like the fact that you get numbers quickly and you know whether or not you’re succeeding.

Our business and the success in our business has always been driven by a competitive dynamic of giving the audience what they want. And I think the more we stay in tune with the audience-take shows off quickly that aren’t working and put other shows on and try and find out what they want-the healthier our business is.

When we slow things down because we think time is going to cure it, I don’t think that’s the answer. The audience comes and they move on. They find shows they like in a short period of time and you can figure it out pretty quickly. … If the show’s not working … for you as a producer, you’re losing money. If it’s not working for the stations, they’re losing money.

TVWeek: How do you keep what is on the air fresh?

Michael Gelman: The live aspect of “Live” helps keep it fresh, and then we really treat every single show as kind of a living, breathing organism. As the show is going on we’re reacting to what’s going on on that show and what’s going on in the news, what’s going on live. Too many shows get caught up into their plan and their format. …

Also, we don’t really believe in any revolutionary change. Everything’s an evolution. It’s little changes here and there. So if you take a look at our show five years ago, it’s going to be much different.

TVWeek: How do you see the future of live television, considering you run a live show, Michael?

Mr. Gelman: There’s a tremendous future. One of the reasons is cost. When you have a new talent, especially, that’s not making millions and millions of dollars, you know, you turn a live TV camera on and make it work, and the cable stations do that incredibly.

Obviously, for broadcast you want more production values and other things, but live TV is very vibrant and even on an entertainment show like ours, we cover what’s going on and people feel like they’re connected to what’s going on in the news.

So even if we’re not doing a lot of serious or even that many straight informational segments, they know that if something’s going on we’re going to be talking about it, and they can watch it every day, and it can be your friend and you know that it’s there and it’s a security blanket.

So you get those viewers that tune in every single day as part of their morning habit to hear what’s going on, to hear that little chat over coffee, and to hear even if it’s about the latest movie opening with a celebrity. They feel connected to what’s going on right now, so it’s very current.

Ms. Perry: We’re a country now that’s experienced 9/11, the hurricane, major events that affect Middle America all over the country, and to have … a vehicle that is live and it’s more timely, we can talk about it, there’s more immediate information. Information on how people are going to survive during those times.

TVWeek: Jim, even with a taped show like Telepictures’ “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” this can be true, right?

Mr. Paratore: Yeah, that show’s pretty much day-and-date, though. But I do think … there is a moment in time where things are relevant to people and the more topical and the more relevant you are to what’s going on in people’s lives, the more effective I think your promotion is and the more sticking the show’s going to be.

TVWeek: Jim, can you speak to keeping a nonlive show fresh?

Mr. Paratore: It’s always a challenge with these shows. I think you have to constantly stay in tune with it. I think if you look at it over time, “Oprah” is the pre-eminent example of success in our business, and I don’t think anyone has done a better job of reinventing herself, keeping that show fresh, staying relevant to her audience. I think it’s a lesson that we can all emulate and try and do.

TVWeek: There has been a lot of talk in recent seasons about the dearth of successful prime-time sitcoms that make it to syndication. Is the effect as serious as some folks say?

Mr. Paratore: Well, there’s no doubt. We went through, starting in, what was it, ’84, when “Cosby” went on the air … we had a run of blockbuster sitcoms over a period of time that was pretty much unprecedented in the business, and then there was a lull. But there have been shows that worked. “Friends,” “Raymond,” “Seinfeld,” “Simpsons”-is there a bigger show than “The Simpsons” in the history of the business? I don’t think so.

I think [Warner Bros.’] “Two and a Half Men” is another A-list sitcom and [Twentieth Television’s] “[My Name Is] Earl” had success on NBC this year. And there were a couple of other shows that are showing some promise, so I just think it’s a c
yclical business and we’ve been through a cycle of great hits and a little bit of a downside, and it looks like the cycle’s building for another good run.

TVWeek: Jack, your stations are one of the biggest buyers of these sitcoms, along with the Tribune stations. Do you see the Fox stations continuing to be a big buyer of off-network sitcoms?

Mr. Abernethy: There’s a cycle. There’s always. And we can expect more sitcoms. The problem is, in the short term, they’re not here. They’re not available. …

Our stations exclusively have benefited tremendously from putting sitcoms on and counterprogramming traditional networks to great success, and they’re not available, at least in the short-term, for us, so I even worry more long term. …

But having said that, I think we’re still very much in the business and there are terrific sales vehicles, there’s a great audience, even for news. So it’s a tough short-term problem.

TVWeek: How much does the overall health of the stations come into play when deciding when to launch the sales of off-net sitcoms?

Mr. Paratore: That’s always part of the decision. The decision on “Two and a Half Men” was to take the risk [to wait a year] … based on the performance that we’d seen on “Two and a Half Men” following “Raymond,” where last year it was consistently outperforming “Raymond’s” lead-in, and that was during “Raymond’s” final year.

No show out of seven shows prior had been able to do that. We were confident that the show would work at 9:00 [where the show airs this season]. In the marketplace it’s more valuable if it’s proven that it can start a time period, you know, at 9:00 and sort of start a night like that in a straight-up time period, so that was really the reason to wait [more than the economic climate among station buyers].

TVWeek: In daytime, with the ratings being down across the board, how are you all making the numbers work? Do you have to resign yourself to just making a little bit less in the daypart?

Mr. Abernethy: The reality of it is that television station earnings have been flat or up slightly over the last five years, maybe. So the environment is not good, and that’s something that we deal with. Prior to that it grew a lot healthier and there was more opportunity. So we do have to deal in a tough economic environment.

TVWeek: Do you see the potential of a broadband window as a reality, and if so, what impact do you expect a broadband window to have on the syndication business?

Mr. Paratore: I don’t see it as a business today for first-run product, for big off-network sitcoms, for things like that. For library product, we’ll see in the experiment that we’re doing with AOL [In2TV], but our business is still focused on broadcast television. …

The Internet is a powerful force and it’s only going to grow, and we’re going to figure it out, but I still think that, when you look at the numbers, broadcast television and TV advertising still drive business. … The broadcast business still has the largest numbers.

If we want to keep it healthy we have to stay competitive and stay on top of it and make sure that the creative resources stay focused on it. Over the last 10 years our business has consolidated itself; we’ve lost a lot of creativity. There have been a lot of producers and stuff-like Stu Billet, who did “The People’s Court” the first time around, made a lot of money off of that show.

As the business has changed, we’ve taken the upside away from producers, so what do producers do? They follow the money. They go somewhere else. And they’ve moved to cable, they’re moving to the Internet.

Our business has to be careful that we keep the incentives in place, that we stay focused on satisfying the consumer and allow the producers to make some money. Otherwise they’re going to find it elsewhere, and what happens is you not only lose that talent in the business that you’re in, but that talent goes and puts its resources in the businesses that are competing against you, so it’s a lose-lose if you’re not careful.

TVWeek: So how do you hang on to them? What are some of these incentives?

Mr. Paratore: Look, it’s still a business and you still have to try and figure out ways to do it. There’s no silver bullet magic answer. You’ve just got to get up and keep pushing the boulders up the hills. I don’t have an easy answer for that.

Mr. Abernethy: There’s a sense now, it’s almost like when the Internet boom started, that somehow if you’re not on a cellphone right now, you’re out of business in three weeks. And the fact is we are a broad-based distribution vehicle and broadband is not broad-based yet. It’s not always easy to watch, it’s not always easy to hear; most people still have dial-up.

But we can’t do what broadcasters did 20 years ago and look at cable as it was emerging and say, “Well, that’s not a broad-based vehicle and no one wants it, and it’s tiny” and ignore it. But you can’t pretend that it’s as important to us as cable is now. It’s really a promotional vehicle, and one that we need to work with to stay on top of, but not one to, from a business standpoint, overreact to.

TVWeek: Jack, what’s the spirit and the culture at Fox News Channel, of which you were one of the chief architects? What, if anything, have you done to impart any of that to Fox Television Stations?

Mr. Abernethy: News Corp.-I think it’s unique, having seen some other cultures, in that there really are a number of separate cultures. I’ve often said that the Fox News Channel could not have succeeded anywhere else because as a start-up they needed the free rein to really develop and grow. So they were allowed to develop a real can-do, entrepreneurial culture inside of a real big company, which is very tough.

But I think culture-particularly with all the technology with AOL and broadband-it’s very important, particularly for our business, which is one of the oldest to really develop an entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s very hard in big companies to do that.

In fact, it takes more discipline sometimes to be freer and to think broadly. So we try to do that. It’s hard because as the oldest business you’ve got to continue to do things and service customers in the ways they’re used to. So culture’s important.

All big companies are going to have the challenge now, particularly with the Internet, where most of the successful Internet businesses have come from outside companies. And so the challenge will be, while developing internal businesses, to also acquire them and have them work inside your company, and that’s where the culture’s important.

TVWeek: Let’s talk about your plans for the National Association of Television Program Executives conference. Are you planning to attend?

Mr. Paratore: If Jack’s going, I’m going. We all still support NATPE, but the truth is a lot of the business gets conducted prior to that.

Ms. Perry: I’m going. I mean, it’s not the same party it was 10 years ago. NATPE used to be like our Oscars and our Emmys. It was something we all looked forward to because even though we had a sense of what was going on, we still celebrated.

It’s all of your buyers under one umbrella. It saves you a lot of New York trips.

It was exciting, it was fun, and now it really is business. I think that we have a sense of what’s going to happen before NATPE, but last year there were shows that we weren’t absolutely 100 percent sure about. There’s a lot of international business going on. Certainly in our business right now we have to look at that, especially in the network area. I mean, a lot of the shows, like “Dancing With the Stars” and “American Idol,” came out of the international area.

I don’t know how we don’t go to NATPE. It’s important, just supporting our clients and our stations and general managers. I would like to see more energy come back.

TVWeek: Is the new platform business a draw at NATPE for you at this point, perhaps in terms of making content deals for existing programming?

Mr. Abernethy: Some of the new technologies eventually are going to be moneymakers, but I think it’s a long ways off.

For syndication, some of these different revenue streams could start to add audience and some dollars to the bottom line, but a lot of the time there are different rights issues that cannibalize a lot of those potential profits and a lot of things to work out, and the numbers just aren’t that big right now. But I think eventually it is going to add up to something.

TVWeek: We’ve certainly shed a light on a lot of things so far, but I’m wondering whether there are any misconceptions that maybe irk you about your business.

Ms. Perry: I think the lack of risk that we can take now. I think if there’s a frustrating area for me, it’s that it used to be fun, the creative part of the business. I know we had the duopolies, we have the mergers-that’s making it very difficult for us to be as creative as we were before. But we’ve seen a lot of successful things come out of risk and I think if there’s a frustration right now, it’s that we used to rely so much on our gut and our passion, and I don’t know that we have that luxury anymore.

Mr. Paratore: I think there’s a perception, too, that the business is bad, that there’s this cloud. And I don’t think-I think if you look at programming today, I mean, between “Dr. Phil,” “Ellen,” what you guys [to Mr. Gelman] did with “Regis,” the success of the court shows-there’s actually more success than there has been in a long time. I think that the market is still very strong.

It’s different than it used to be, but you just react to those changes. But our business is still strong and we’re having a lot of success-a lot more than I think people sometimes give us credit for. I think there’s a lot of opining about the golden days or the past, or whatever, but I think the future is fine and the present is strong.

Mr. Abernethy: I also think that just because there hasn’t been a lot of hits and a lot of the shows tend to be … copycats, that there’s a misperception. We’re really out there looking very hard for new ideas, new talent, new concepts. We’re working with our stations, so I think there’s a lot going on. I think it’s true [at Telepictures] as well, to try to develop and come up with ideas and really create the next big one.

I think that because we’re so secretive about it, because Jim will try to steal the idea, that no one really knows about it. But we’re working on a lot of different things and the real challenge is to develop and find people that can do strip television. A lot of people can do something once a week. There’s a lot of ideas that makes sense once a week. … So we spend a lot of time trying to find talent, ideas that will work in strip television.

TVWeek: Would you recommend this business for your children?

Mr. Gelman: I would. I think it beats a real job, definitely. I mean, one of, I think, our reasons for long-term success on our show is really the good time we have doing it. Not that business is always lots of fun and laughs, but a lot of my job is. The happy Regis [Philbin] and Kelly [Ripa] you see on the air is really them being happy, and that can’t happen unless there’s a whole happy environment.

Mr. Abernethy: This is a terrific business, and the issues that we deal with run the gamut from technology, entertainment and politics. But I will tell you, I used to think years ago that for my son it would be terrific because he’s such a bad student that the perfect job would be for him to be a syndication salesman. But I can’t say that anymore; it’s gotten tough with these guys.

Ms. Perry: I don’t know if there is a job or career out there that gives us the kind of excitement and allows us to work with some of the most interesting personalities in this business. On one day when you walk into your office … you’re dealing with entertainment shows, the next day it’s about a soldier embedded and a reporter covering the war and you’re getting these e-mails from the world of what’s happening, to just all the quality people that we work with. We talk about what’s not right and what’s good, but there’s a lot of really good people and certainly the personalities that we’ve been able to work with through the years.

Mr. Paratore: I would just add that it’s a great business. It is a challenge. I think the challenges that we’re going through are exciting. The business is redefining itself right now and there are no rules, and I think that’s the excitement of it all right now, is that we’re sort of building new models and trying to figure out what the future of this business is going to be about. So all the years we’ve spent working in it are the resources we have to draw upon, and it’s sort of like living by your wits and trying to figure it out. And I find that exciting.