Small Stuff Gets Into the Big Time

Dec 18, 2006  •  Post A Comment

While bigger syndicators await news of time slot openings before moving forward with their development slates, independents large and small are entering a renaissance, with many utilizing nontraditional content for stations, whether it’s off-cable, off-syndication or off-Canada.

Program Partners’ announcement last week that the distributor has cleared “Degrassi: The Next Generation” as a strip in 60 percent of the country, including the Tribune station group, marked another victory for smaller distributors that don’t have the leverage of a major corporate parent company or sister station group. The formula for many of these successes has been to find the cracks left behind by the studio behemoths, find content suitable for the underserved market and establish footholds for future deals.

“A natural consequence of consolidation is that as a company gets bigger its focus gets bigger, which means a lot of areas become overlooked,” said Josh Raphaelson, co-founder of Program Partners. “We decided to originally get into the weekly syndication business because that was an area that the majors were overlooking. Because the majors have massive portfolios that they are expected to churn to meet year-end projections, we are in a position to pursue acquisitions that are uniquely targeted for specific audiences and time periods, and that has helped us succeed.”

“Degrassi” originally aired nationally on The N, the nighttime network for teens from MTV Networks. The syndicator also found success utilizing off-net fare from Canada in weekly series “Da Vinci’s Inquest,” “Cold Squad” and “Stone Undercover,” all of which have an abundance of episodes ready to air yet had been rarely seen by American audiences. Similarly, on Program Partners’ plate for future years will be Canadian series “ReGenesis” and “Intelligence.”

“One advantage is our size and the entrepreneurial nature of the company … It allows us to move quickly and efficiently in conducting business,” said fellow Program Partners founder Rich Colbert. “That allows us to analyze the overall landscape of the marketplace and selectively move to adapt to needs and changes. It would never make sense for a studio to do the same thing.”

By tapping into ready-made libraries, independents are able to seek profits despite the decade of consolidation that has transpired since the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed the old financial-syndication rules. Now, independents of all sizes, from well-established companies looking to challenge the big studios on their own turf to upstarts looking to break in for the first time, are flourishing under this business model.

Debmar-Mercury, run by longtime syndication heavyweights Ira Bernstein and Mort Marcus, has already tapped into established series such as “South Park” and “Farscape” from cable and found success. For the 2007-08 season, the company will offer as a potential strip an upcoming reality “Surreal Life Package,” which includes a slew of celebrity-centric programs that originally ran on VH1. In addition, off-cable runs of “The Dead Zone” are slated to air amid the weekly ranks.

Meanwhile, Litton Entertainment stunned some analysts when it acquired the rights to Fremantle’s series “Baywatch” with the idea to strip the series’ 109 episodes for stations. By tapping into one of the most storied franchises to ever hit syndication, the distributor plans to capitalize on the ready-made branding associated with the show. The series is being offered on an all-barter basis for three years.

Fremantle’s decision to go with Litton as a syndicator as opposed to one of the big conglomerates has potential advantages, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for the Katz Television Group.

“The question is, do you want to be the No. 1 priority for a boutique syndicator or on the list of options with a larger syndicator?” he said. “You then have to weigh the pluses and minuses in that context.”

Another distributor that is following the model is First Look, which is offering Canadian mystery drama “The Collector” to stations as a weekly series.

Once independents are able to establish that foothold, it’s up to them to continue broadening their real estate on multiple platforms and look to their future by providing programs that will find audiences.

“The fact that we have a foothold in analog will allow us to help kick-start our broadband initiative,” Mr. Raphaelson said. “Looking ahead, we are really intrigued with the expansion of new technologies from digital television to broadband and beyond. With our business model, we can capitalize on a lot of opportunities for us as those areas grow that may not get the same amount of focus from the bigger brands. We like that.”