Guest Commentary: Finding New Roads to Syndie Success

Jul 6, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The chorus of complaints about the decline of television syndication has grown louder with each passing season. It has been labeled a “dying” business by some, based largely on self-defeating public comments by those who remember how rewarding it once was.
Today, we have reached a crossroads. The industry can either choose to continue going down this same destructive path and die, or stop the grieving and start adapting to a challenging market.
In an environment where leading first-run series such as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!,” “Oprah” and “Entertainment Tonight” have been around for decades, and a show that averages a 1 rating is considered a strong candidate for renewal, a large degree of out-of-the-box thinking is required.
If you have any misgivings about this theory, just take a look at the biggest syndication success stories of recent years. It shouldn’t take long, because there are only two names on the list, “Dr. Phil” and “Rachael Ray,” both of which benefited from having “Oprah” as a launch pad.
However, since there is only one “Oprah,” the rest of us are just going to have to think about creating new business models that are capable of producing quality programming. We tried and succeeded with the first-run sitcom “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” and now we are moving forward with another alternative sales model for talk with “The Wendy Williams Show.”
Our goal in each case has been to craft deals that allow everyone involved to minimize risks and share the rewards. By building broadcast network-like flexibility into the pacts, buyers have the chance to see what they’re getting, rather than making costly long-term commitments solely on the basis of a seven-minute sizzle tape.
With the failure rate so high for first-run shows, we opted for the concept of abbreviated first-run “preview” series, believing it would be far more practical than the current model and provide producers with more chances at bat. If, as an industry, we produced 20 “previews” during the year, it would greatly improve the typical odds of just one in 10 syndicated series working when they are ordered for a full season or two—and with less risk to both distributors and stations.
That was our thinking with “Wendy Williams.” By producing 30 live episodes, and putting the show on geographically and demographically desirable Fox stations in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Detroit for six weeks, everyone will know what they are buying beforehand for fall 2009 in terms of creative, time periods and ratings.
We believe that will offer stations smarter deals, a better lineup and a better chance of both sides succeeding in the long run. And by allowing the series to rest for a year after building a strong fan base in key markets, it will be more likely to receive renewed press interest around the time of its national launch, giving it a huge marketing advantage. Meanwhile, in failure, everyone winds up losing far, far less.
But the “Wendy Williams” rule doesn’t apply in every case. In fact, the only rule here is that there are no rules. Each deal requires a different kind of approach, as Twentieth Television achieved more than two decades ago when it introduced the slow-rollout model with “A Current Affair.”
In today’s tough business climate, it is even more imperative to take a nontraditional approach to selling. In fact, there would be no “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” had we depended on focus groups and other standard research methods, rather than choosing to pay close attention to the market.
With a lack of off-network comedies coming into the broadcast and cable marketplace a few
years ago, we concluded the time was right to offer stations something they were not getting from the networks. So we selected 10 stations and provided them with a free 10-episode on-air test, even though that had never been done before.
The off-the-cuff strategy produced astronomical ratings, definitive research and multiple full episodes that buyers could see in advance, resulting in the pre-sale of 100 episodes to TBS, Fox and other broadcast outlets.
Of course, a show can only succeed if it is good, and we think the best chance of scoring a hit today is to go with creative concepts that are based on well-known brands.
Now that Fox and TBS have wholeheartedly embraced some of these concepts, our hope is that buyers and sellers throughout the rest of the industry will follow suit, leading to a return to the optimism that once prevailed in the syndication business.
Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein are co-presidents of media company Debmar-Mercury.

One Comment

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