T Dog’s Think Tank: The state of syndication today

First of two parts.

Josef Adalian had some thoughts on the current state of the syndication business in a wonderfully written column in TV Week, as the NATPE convention descended on Las Vegas this past week. As a person who is very knowledgeable about this business – since the days yours truly read his first NATPE issue of TV/Radio Age as a 12-year old in 1985 – I can tell you first hand this business – and the convention itself – just isn’t the same.

The first-run syndication business exploded in the 1970’s and 1980’s, with many hits. But the business has been slowly declining for years, thanks to the perfect storm of consolidation between syndicators, station groups, and stations themselves; general erosion of broadcast television ratings; and the emergence of DVDs and the Internet. When consolidation became a force – especially after fin-syn ended in 1995 and Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) expired in 1996, cost became a major concern. Say goodbye to the exotic, spacious booths on the NATPE convention floor and hello to cramped hotel suites.

The problems actually had its root in the early 1970’s, when the FCC gave syndicators a huge break.

The FCC instituted PTAR in 1971 – forcing the Big Three networks to give the 7:30 ET time slot to affiliates to program themselves. Affiliates in the 50 largest metropolitan markets were barred from airing off-network fare in the hour before prime-time, relying only on local or first-run programs. The move was a huge boon for the first-run syndication industry, as most stations used first-run shows in a “checkerboarding” format, i.e. airing a different show in the same time slot every night. Unfortunately, most of the early first-run entries back then weren’t known for their quality. And while affiliates couldn’t run off-network sitcoms in the hour before prime-time, independent stations did by airing repeats of off-net sitcoms such as Andy Griffith and I Dream of Jeannie and reaped even bigger benefits than network affiliates did airing first-run fare.

In 1973 for example, early evening fare consisted of a sitcom titled Dusty’s Trail, a Gilligan’s Island clone set in the Old West featuring Bob Denver no less; another sitcom titled Ozzie’s Girls, a sequel to the classic sitcom Ozzie & Harriet where the elder Nelsons took in two young college women as borders and hilarity supposedly ensues; and an one-hour import from Canada titled Starlost, which featured a crew on a 200-mile ship in outer space. Considered one of the worst sci-fi series of all-time and shot on glorious videotape, the scripts and the cast of the show indeed looked “lost”. Needless to say, none of these shows made it to a second season.

In 1983, Comedian Alan Thicke with MGM and Metromedia, decided to challenge Johnny Carson with Thicke of the Night, a 90-minute talk show. The only thing he challenged was his own sanity. Hated by critics and ignored by viewers, the series averaged a 0.8 rating – a record low at the time for any first-run strip. Thicke finally vanished in September 1984, lasting longer than anyone thought (Thicke said he fainted after watching after watching his debut. Imagine what he did after watched the second episode…)

During the 1987-88 season, the NBC O&Os decided to return to checkboarding programs in prime access at 7:30 p.m. ET (6:30 in Chicago), this time, featuring a different syndicated sitcom each night. With the likes of Suzanne Sommers in She’s the Sheriff and Michael Richards stumbling around in Marblehead Manor, the critically panned programs were incompatible with each other and wound up attracting different demos. The experiment mercifully ended months later.

The 1990’s saw syndicators trying to replicate the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Baywatch, and Xena with one action hour failure after another. Remember Viper, Fame L.A., and Queen of Swords? Neither does anyone else. Meanwhile, the talk show graveyard was littered with the courses of Chuck Woolery, Dennis Miller, Bertice Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Charles Perez, Stephanie Miller, Ron Reagan, Terry Bradshaw (yes, Terry Bradshaw!), etc… I could go on and on.

But of all the time the critics spend on the shortcomings of syndication, it has produced some great success stories.

The first syndicated hit can be traced to the surprise ratings successes of Sea Hunt and Huckleberry Hound in the 1950’s. The Muppet Show and the weeknight version of Family Feud were overnight sensations in the late 1970’s. King World changed the business forever with the success of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! breaking the ratings records in the 1980’s, and making the company and its founders very rich. Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey both put daytime talk on the map, but Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer, and Jenny Jones were responsible for raising the sleaze factor.

Aresnio Hall became the first successful African-American late-night talk show host, while Maury Povich introduced A Current Affair into our homes, spawning an even sleazier arch-rival in Hard Copy.

Scripted shows also has their share of success. Fame moved into first-run syndication in 1983 after a season and a half on NBC, while Star Trek: TNG premiered four years later and became a monster success. Both shows proved with great writing and acting, a program can draw an audience, no matter what platform the program was airing in. Then came the success of Baywatch, another short-lived NBC castoff. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was a smash hit in 1993, while Bablyon 5, Xena, and Hercules also were quite successful.

First-run sitcoms became a staple on weekend schedules in the 1980’s with revivals of Too Close for Comfort, Mama’s Family and Charles in Charge – all three would find greater success in first-run than they ever could on the major networks. Meanwhile, Small Wonder was a monster hit, finishing in the Top 10 syndicated programs list for three of its four seasons on the air.

But those success seem long ago as syndicators have found it tougher and tougher to launch new shows and succeed. Only two programs were christened bona fide hits in the last fifteen years: The Rosie O’Donnell Show and Dr. Phil (keep in mind some successful shows currently on the air – Judge Judy, Regis & Kathie Lee/Kelly, and Ellen – started out slow and built their audience over time.)

Unfortunately, the syndication business of today has become a shell of its former self. Only one scripted action hour exists (Legend of the Seeker) with none coming down the pike for next fall. There are too many courtroom shows in daytime, with at least two more coming. Many viewers and advertisers have fled syndication over the years, as most first-run and off-network programs have seen rating declines.

The problem with syndication seems to be the lack of originality, innovation, and creativity, and its one that has plagued the business for decades. Syndication is seen as a business whose model is more built on sales and earning revenue than anything else. The familiar formats work because they can draw an audience and generate revenue. Risk-taking is – well, too risky, which is why you see Judge Judy clones all over the place.

And while shows like Wheel and Jeopardy! and even Oprah outdraw a lot of prime-time shows, TV critics could care less (unless someone like Ken Jennings can win seventy games in a row, like did on Jeopardy in 2004.) And when they do write about syndicated fare – it’s usually not positive. For example, Chicago Tribune TV critic Clarence Petersen criticized PTAR in a 1973 article for failing to create the local, diverse programming the rule was intended for. Petersen singled out Let’s Make A Deal (the highest-rated first-run show at the time), quoting a New York City TV critic as saying “a show of such unbridled avarice that Mafia members are said to turn it off in disgust.”[1] Luckily for host Monty Hall, he seldom visited the Big Apple.

And things haven’t changed much. If you look at syndication today, you see a sludge of court, talk, and off-net programming, with most not even coming close in quality. Can someone tell me why Jury Duty (with an average rating of 0.2) and Comics Unleashed (in reruns) are still on the air? Why does Steve Wilkos deserve a third season while ratings hover around 0.8? Are station managers this neglectful of their schedules they don’t care what they air anymore?

And those barter ad spots… ugh. Many shows in syndication are filled with direct-response ads like those for Hoveround chairs and Craftmatic beds (are they targeting the 25-54 audience or the nursing home crowd?) Daytime TV in syndication is looking more and more like the ragged dollar store down the street. When you find The Best of Cristina’s Court DVD at the local Family Dollar in the bargain bin for only 99 cents, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I guess I better hop in my Hoveraround chair and head on down there to pick up a copy.

Some stations have given up completely. NBC affiliate WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee no longer airs syndicated strips (aside from Better TV, which is currently in 20 markets), and decided to expand its newscasts instead. If the quality of the product doesn’t improve, more and more stations – notably ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates – will move away from syndicated fare and produce their own, notably in the form of local news or talk shows. Already, network affiliates in San Francisco, Boston, Miami, and few other markets are airing local newsmagazines in prime access.

In fact, one of those stations – CBS-owned KPIX-TV in San Francisco (who now airs Eye by the Bay weeknights at 7:00 p.m. ) was a pioneer in the concept when it introduced Evening Magazine in 1976, a local entertainment and lifestyle magazine strip. Then-owner Group W expanded the show to four of its other owned stations (it some markets it was called PM Magazine) and later to other local stations, using material in a “cooperative”, where they could customize content to suit their market with locally-produced segments. Oddly enough, Westinghouse Broadcasting was the only TV station group owner who understood what the PTAR rule was all about (though it took them six years.)

So, it’s easy to see why syndication doesn’t get any respect. It needs to get away from the real estate mentality and into one more creative and innovative-based. After all, the housing market collapsed in the past year. The syndication business could wind up doing the same.

Coming up in Part II – A new, ground-breaking model for producing programming arrives – and its happening right here in Chicago. Is this the future for syndicaton?

[1] – Petersen, Clarence (1973-02-11), “Even the Mafia can’t stomach it”, Chicago Tribune pg L8, TV Week.

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