Syndicator Snapshots

Oct 9, 2006  •  Post A Comment

A number of syndicators—some of which rival the size of some media conglomerates’ syndication divisions—have distinguished themselves as fixtures by distributing steady amounts of content and forging unique financial models.

Many of those companies, without benefit of a huge corporate parent or a sister station group, are developing innovative ways to remain competitive in syndication, often by going into businesses that larger syndicators have abandoned.

Last week, TelevisionWeek looked at the legacy syndication giants that have sister

station groups or studio libraries. This week we highlight seven other busy syndication companies.

Aim Shoots for Niche Market, Serves English-Speaking Latinos

Aim TV Group targets a specific market with its programs: English-speaking, U.S.-born Latinos. Though it sounds like an almost impossible subgroup to target in syndication, CEO Robert Rose said the recent business trends book “The Long Tail,” which touts the economies of providing content to tiny but specific audiences, is tailor-made for his company.

“When I read that book, I said ‘That’s us,'” Mr. Rose said. “The niche is bigger than the general market if it’s big enough.”

Recent changes in the local-station business also provided for some opportunity for the company, which was able to increase some of its clearances, even in markets that aren’t considered heavily Hispanic markets. The death of The WB and UPN and the rise of The CW and MyNetworkTV have created new schedule opportunities, but Aim’s own track record also created new business. “Latino” began its fifth season last weekend, while “LatiNation” entered its third season.

“We have a much firmer foundation,” Mr. Rose said.

But for now, Aim is not going to add other weekly programs or build out into Monday-through-Friday series. Instead, the plan is to “build the ‘American Latino’ brand” by working with local stations to further promote its existing shows and create brand extensions such as a clothing line and other merchandise.

“We are going to build value, build our library and mainly continue to build a connection to the audience we are serving,” he said.

Aim Tell-a-Vision Group

First-run highlights: One-hour weeklies “American Latino TV” and “LatiNation”; quarterly specials “American Latino Dreams” and “American Latino Athletes”

Newly Acquired Debmar-Mercury Revives First-Run Format

Even independent companies not aligned with station groups or billion-dollar media conglomerates with massive libraries are consolidating. In July, syndicator Debmar-Mercury was acquired by independent film and TV studio Lionsgate for about $27 million. The deal kept Debmar-Mercury principals Ira Bernstein and Mort Marcus in charge of their distribution business and operating as a wholly owned subsidiary of Lionsgate.

Aside from Debmar-Mercury’s educational and informational reality programming distribution business and its off-cable series, the company is going into the first-run comedy arena with “House of Payne,” a syndicated sitcom from film and theater producer Tyler Perry.

Debmar-Mercury had test runs of 10 “Payne” episodes on selected stations over the summer, which encouraged the company to go forward with production of 100 episodes that will begin airing on cable network TBS in June 2007 and in syndication on Fox-owned stations in 2008. “Payne” marks the return of a business that no syndicator—regardless of size—has attempted in more than a decade.

The deal with Lionsgate is also likely to result in Debmar-Mercury’s distribution of the studio’s own recent cable successes, “Weeds” and “Wildfire.” Mr. Marcus and Mr. Bernstein declined comment for this article.

Debmar Mercury

First-run highlights:

Sitcom “House of Payne”; reality half-hours “Animal Atlas” and “Safari Tracks”

Off-network highlights: Comedy “South Park”; dramas “The Dead Zone” and “Farscape”; reality half-hour “Really Wild Animals” and upcoming reality “Surreal Life” package

Don Cornelius Stays Alive With ‘Soul Train’ Fever

On the air since the Nixon Administration, “Soul Train” holds the title of longest-running first-run syndicated series, with more than 35 years of shows.

“Soul Train” was created by Don Cornelius, who in 1970 was working for WCIU-TV in Chicago when he envisioned a music show targeting black viewers for the station. The show premiered as a Monday-through-Friday strip, shot in black-and-white. A year later, after setting a target of selling the show to 25 stations, “Soul Train” was cleared in eight markets.

“At the time, in 1971, the big studios and the heavy hitters weren’t interested in syndication, except for the off-net series, but we stuck,” Mr. Cornelius said to Electronic Media (now TelevisionWeek) in 2001.

“Soul Train” has been an important stop for generations of soul and R&B music artists and performers, including Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Babyface, Eddie Murphy, Prince, LL Cool J, TLC and Mariah Carey.

Don Cornelius Productions

First-run highlights: One-hour “Soul Train”; specials “Soul Train Music Awards,” “Soul Train Lady of Soul” and “Soul Train Christmas Star Fest”

Allen Entertains First-Run Laughs as Off-Network Sitcom Alternative

Entertainment Studios Chairman and CEO Byron Allen holds a distinction that makes him very rare in the syndication business: Since launching his company in 1993, he has never canceled one of his 15 syndicated series.

His newest program is the comedian-centric talk show “Comics Unleashed,” which is being offered on a cash-plus-barter basis. “Comics” launched as a Monday-through-Friday half-hour series Sept. 25 on the Sinclair Broadcast Group to take advantage of the rapidly aging off-network sitcoms that still air in syndication.

“The broadcast industry has been paying collectively a billion dollars for off-net sitcoms,” said Mr. Allen, the former “Real People” cast member who hosts many of his own shows. “They are not going to be able to afford that going forward. We are delivering the same rating, the same demo, but at a fraction of a billion.”

In the current business environment, where many syndicators are producing shows for their corporate station groups, “It’s not about the show but the deal, and unfortunately the viewer is being presented with deals and not shows,” he said.

Entertainment Studios’ business works as a “network of shows on a network of television stations,” Mr. Allen said, noting that he sells advertisers a spot on all his shows, a technique that increases the cumulative audience.

“We may not get him with our travel shows, but we may get him with our car show,” he said.

To increase revenue, the company is aggressively developing a broadband presence, selling shows on DVD and pushing into international markets.

Getting off the ground 13 years ago was tough, Mr. Allen said. It took a year to sell his first show, “Entertainers,” on an all-barter basis, at a time when his home went in and out of foreclosure 14 times.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life to give something away for free,” he said.

Entertainment Studios

First-run highlights: One-hour weekly “Entertainers”; half-hour strip “Comics Unleashed”; and half-hour weeklies “Beautiful Homes & Great Estates,” “Recipe TV,” “Designer Fashions

& Runways,” “Kickin’ It” and “The American Athlete”

Litton’s Slow-Growth Model, ‘Nerd Side’ Pay Off

In addition to its entertainment programming, such as “Joyner and “NASCAR,” and its long-running educational and informational programming, like “Jack Hanna,” Litton also has what President Dave Morgan calls the company’s “nerd side of the business.”

For more than a decade
Litton has provided Consumer Reports-branded segments that local stations can incorporate into local newscasts, as well as live financial reports wrapped in the BusinessWeek moniker and taped reports through a partnership with Good Housekeeping. The NBC-, ABC- and CBS-owned and -operated stations are just some of Litton’s clients, along with the Hearst-owned stations, which rely on Litton to adapt its magazine titles for the filmed segments.

A few years ago Litton was in the weekday talk strip market with “Ask Rita,” a show that was not unsuccessful for the company. “At the end of the day we broke even, but we didn’t make any money,” Mr. Morgan said, noting the company shut production down on a format that many competitors have discovered comes with crushing deficit financing. Small companies failed with this model because “they step up to the plate, take a swing, and if they miss the ball they are out of business.”

Litton’s financial model allows shows to grow audiences over time, while partnerships with companies like McGraw-Hill allows the company to build shows with brands as identifiable as BusinessWeek. A profitable advertising production business for major corporations helps keep costs down on Litton’s self-owned studio and editing facility.

Coming up with an answer to the challenges small syndicators face “is not easy,” he said, but the bottom line is easy: “It’s how you create your model.”

Litton is now taking a package of repeats of “Baywatch” out to market, packaged as a Monday-through-Friday strip.

Litton Entertainment

First-run highlights: Weekday series “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures”; weekly series “The Tom Joyner Show,” “Exploration with Richard Wiese,” “NASCAR Angels,” “Home Team,” BusinessWeek Weekend”

Off-network highlight: Upcoming drama “Baywatch”

Program Partners Profits With Neighbors From the North

Program Partners has made a name for itself by bringing prime-time Canadian programming to the U.S. weekend syndication market.

“The quality of our product speaks for itself,” said Ritch Colbert, who founded the company along with Josh Raphaelson. He added that procedural dramas like “Cold Squad” are on par with American broadcast network fare while being original to the majority of domestic TV viewers.

Part of Program Partners’ success in clearing its first Canadian drama in fall 2006, “Da Vinci’s Inquest,” was due to timing, he said. “We happened to see an opportunity in ‘CSI’-adjacent time periods in late-night. ‘Da Vinci’s’ fit the bill,” he said.

With a bumper crop of new domestic off-network dramas becoming available over the next two years, including heavyweights like “House,” “the marketplace is definitely tightening up,” Mr. Colbert said. However, introducing a new half hour in “DeGrassi: The Next Generation” is another opportunity opening up amid a dearth of new network sitcoms available in syndication.

Size is one of Program Partners’ strengths, Mr. Colbert said.

“Being smaller, we are less likely to be encumbered by our own weight, which always seems to be the challenge of any large organization,” he said.

It also allowed the company to go after a programming opportunity larger companies missed, considering they have to manage their own libraries and address overall corporate concerns like quarterly numbers.

“It’s very unlikely [former Warner Bros. syndication chief] Dick Robertson would jump on a plane and go to Toronto to look for product,” Mr. Colbert said. “They literally have their hands full.”

Program Partners


highlights: Dramas “Da Vinci’s Inquest,” “Cold Squad,” “Stone Undercover” and the upcoming “ReGenesis”; half-hour “Animal Miracles with Alan Thicke” and the upcoming “DeGrassi: The Next Generation”

Telco Topper Makes Hay by Hiring Himself

Telco Productions President Alex Paen, a former local news reporter, knows how to save some big costs in terms of talent—hire yourself to host two of your shows.

After 10 seasons, “Animal Rescue” is a four-time Daytime Emmy nominee, while “Missing,” now in its fourth season, has featured more than 350 people who have since been found by authorities.

Telco’s new weekend half-hour magazine show “Dog Tales” is designed as a companion to “Rescue,” while Mr. Paen describes the company’s new one-hour weekly “Big Audition” as a feel-good talent show that will rely extensively on clips submitted by more than 2,500 acts that will be featured over the course of a season.

To survive in the current marketplace, “You’ve got to be very focused, you’ve got to be efficient with what you do and you have to work harder every year,” Mr. Paen said.

His biggest threat is not content from the major syndicators, he said, but paid programming—an easy option for station managers looking for a quick revenue fix.

“We try and remind them it hurts your programming flow, but that’s a tough argument to sustain because they just look at their bottom line,” he said.

Besides building relationships with station executives who believe in the independent suppliers, Telco has to ensure its programming is “extremely hassle-free” and be flexible when it comes to pre-emptions and schedule changes, Mr. Paen said.

Telco Productions

First-run highlights: Weekly series “Animal Rescue” and “Missing”; upcoming “Dog Tales,” “Big Audition”