Testing the Waters in Syndication

Apr 19, 2009  •  Post A Comment

The July nationwide premiere of Debmar-Mercury’s “The Wendy Williams Show” will mark the television syndication industry’s latest embrace of test-marketing programs to prove their mettle before going national.
It’s an adaptation to the deteriorating marketplace that other independent syndication companies are adding to their arsenal of tricks. As cash-strapped stations struggle to pay license fees, syndicators in the last year have shown a new willingness to get creative.
“Williams” ran for six weeks in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Detroit last summer, giving station groups data they could use to gauge audience reaction to the program.
Chuck Larsen, president of October Moon Television, said he thinks test marketing is a solid idea. The risk of losing money on a failed test run is more attractive than the possibility of a yearlong failure.
Mr. Larsen said that while the tactic is appropriate for some syndicators, larger companies are unlikely to embrace test marketing as quickly as independents.
Those bigger syndicators, like CBS Television Distribution, have the advantage of being able to test the waters through other means. CBS Television Distribution President John Nogawski earlier this year pointed to the practice of introducing new personalities on established programs—for example, “Dr. Oz” springing from “The Oprah Winfrey Show”—as an alternative to test marketing.
Trifecta Entertainment and Media CEO Hank Cohen said his company has yet to distribute a first-run program, but Mr. Cohen said he’s more than willing to try the test-run route.
“If stations want to see what we’ve got before they pledge all that valuable time, in today’s fractious economy, it makes sense,” he said. “Give yourself any kind of leg up you can give yourself.”
Mr. Cohen said one of the major problems with a test-market rollout is that it’s difficult to get a program on desirable networks and time periods.
“You have the right stations and time periods, or it’s more of a test of time periods than the content,” he said.
Debmar is currently 3-for-4 in its test runs, as “Williams,” “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” and “Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns” all were born out of some type of broadcast test run. “Payne” aired in a similar fashion to “Williams,” while TBS aired “Browns” earlier in the year, prior to any pickup announcement.
“Browns” ran a 10-episode test in January on TBS. The show received an 80-episode order in February to air on TBS this year, and is expected to go into syndication in 2010.
The only strikeout was “Tom Green Live!” The talk show aired in medium to large markets such as Milwaukee and Houston to mediocre ratings in 2008, dissuading Debmar from pursuing it further.
Mort Marcus, Debmar-Mercury co-president, said he doesn’t agree with the idea of selling a show on no more proof of concept than a five-minute demo tape. He said he prefers being able to present stations with multiple sample episodes and audience metrics to prove the show’s value.
“By doing a test, you find out if it’s worth a long-term commitment,” Mr. Marcus said. “In the case of ‘Wendy,’ we all found out it’s worth a long-term bet.”
Test-market runs aren’t new, as multiple distributors have used them to varying effect over the years. Twentieth Television ran “Texas Justice” in a limited run on Fox stations in the south during 2001 before its national release. Also, multiple talk programs, including “Oprah” and “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee,” began as local programming that gained a following in their home markets before airing across the country.
Twentieth will be handling the ad sales for “Wendy”; Fox Television Stations were involved with the test run and subsequently bought the show. “Wendy” is cleared in 90% of the country, including the top 20 markets.
Updated clearance information in last graf at 1:22 p.m.


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