In this age of DVRs, mobile devices, streaming services and other inducements to support the “when and where you want” programming philosophy, the syndication landscape is not without its growing pains. Any business is an evolution, particularly in this era of “Peak TV.” Every outlet must search for new revenue streams. And maintaining a piece of the advertising pie in this upfront season is more of a challenge than ever before. But syndication offers several key advantages, among them longevity and live viewing.
Approximately two-dozen first-run syndicated strips at present are past the full decade mark (with this unprecedented durability spread across all genres). Some strips have exceeded two decades; a handful has surpassed three decades; and the majority of these veteran series are expected back next season.
An estimated 94 percent of the audience, meanwhile, still consumes its content live, which keeps syndication in a protected bubble of sorts. These offerings are familiar to the available audience. The distributors know exactly who the target audience is, which is a real advantage for an advertiser looking to reach a specific demographic. And relative consistency via the traditional Nielsen ratings is the overall pattern this season, to-date, in syndication versus last year.
“There is a certain level of comfort for these first-run and off-network syndicated series,” noted media analyst Brad Adgate. “And this breeding ground of familiarity does give syndication an advantage going in as the overall viewing experience continues to become more fractionalized.”
For any content platform at present, syndication included, the primary goal is adapting to the rise of digital consumption where platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have redefined the viewing experience. That being said, they aren’t viewed live, and in the case of Netflix and Amazon they don’t sell ads in the programs.
”When you talk about live viewing it is daytime, it is access, it is late night, it is everything to do with syndication, and that is one of the reasons why advertisers do like this business” said Michael Teicher, EVP, Media Sales of Twentieth Television.
Teicher oversees all sales initiatives on behalf of Twentieth Television and distributor Debmar-Mercury, which in the first-run arena includes “Divorce Court,” “Family Feud,” “The Wendy Williams Show,” Endemol’s “Page Six TV” and the upcoming “Caught in Providence” from Debmar and Discovery’s “True Crime Files,” which both launch next fall.
“Caught in Providence” and “True Crime Files”
“Caught in Providence,” which the Fox Television Stations and the Sinclair Broadcast Group have picked up, is a court show with Judge Frank Caprio, featuring fresh episodes of real-life cases directly from Caprio’s Providence, Rhode Island courtroom. “As it turns out, Frank Caprio is an internet sensation, which is ironic because he is an older gentleman,” noted Teicher. “But after walking into the offices of several buyers and speaking with the millennial generation, apparently he is very popular on YouTube. We think we may have a sleeping giant here; a lovable guy who is not a pushover talking about small court claims who makes it very entertaining.”
“True Crime Files,” meanwhile, is a repackaging of 260 broadcast premiere hours selected from its current cable home, Discovery ID.
“Discovery ID is laced with shows that are based on creating real crimes and dramatizations, and figuring out the whodunit,” said Teicher. “They have about six or eight shows under this umbrella of which they do these shows and they put them together under one banner program called ‘True Crime Files.’ What is really shocking, and one of the reasons we are so optimistic about this, is that season to-date Discovery ID is the No. 1 cable network in women 25-54. To position it in daytime is an enormous opportunity.”
“We think we have compelling content in ‘True Crime Files’ that will be new to the right demo in a nationally distributed broadcast format,” he added. “And we are going to distribute a show off-cable that happens to be a magnet for women in daytime targeted for women.”
The Evolution of Syndication
“At the moment, every facet of the media landscape is changing,” noted Robert Russo, president and CEO of consulting firm RNR Media. “As the overall audience continues to diminish, which is a common thread everywhere, you have to come up with the program models that can generate interest and produce financially.”
One such model, which we have seen in the past, are the station groups – Fox, Scripps and Tegna, for example – now more likely to produce shows themselves rather than counting on large syndicators to provide them with product. “Historically, this is nothing new. Think Group W, for example, from days past,” said media analyst Bill Carroll. “Everything old is new again in this case.”
Westinghouse Broadcasting, also known as Group W, produced shows back in the 1960s and beyond like talkers “The Mike Douglas Show” and “Hour Magazine” in daytime, and “The Merv Griffin Show” in primetime and late night. And this trend of more original production by the station groups has returned via a series like “Top 30” from the Fox Station Group, which was launched as a test-run on select Fox stations in the summer of 2016 and began nationally this past fall.
Another model in syndication, which is becoming more common, is the test-run, which is a proven strategy to position, and ultimately test a new series.
“I like the model that the Fox Television Stations do over the summer when they test a variety of different shows and they let them run three to six weeks,” noted 20th’s Michael Teicher. “I think that is a brilliant way to determine if you have something that looks good to the audience and if people watch it. So, I do think doing these test-runs, or taking something that already has some brand resonance and distributing a show like that is a particularly good model at present.”
Once recent example of a successful test-run is aforementioned “Page Six TV,” which debuted nationally last fall after an initial three week run on the Fox Television stations in the summer of 2016. In the recent week of March 12, “Page Six TV” was the only syndicated freshman strip on the week-to-week plus side, increasing by 14 percent and matching its highest rating of the season, according to Nielsen.
Last summer, the Fox Television Stations tested two locally produced talkers, “The Jason Show,” hosted by Jason Matheson, and “The Q,” hosted by Quincy Harris and featuring local and celebrity in-studio guests, comedy, and viral news. And, this fall, Tenga launched three shows on various station affiliates: “Daily Blast Live,” which also airs on Facebook and YouTube; talk show “Sister Circle,” which can also be seen on cable net TV One; and weekly competition series “Sing Like a Star.”
Is the Digital “Honeymoon” Over?
“From an advertiser standpoint, we have seen a few things happen over the last couple of years,” noted Teicher about the digital arena. “There is a growing distrust and a lack of confidence in digital advertising, which has really diminished the number of digital partners that advertisers use. Cable distribution has been dropping dramatically, along with ratings. And this has caused a crisis for advertisers. They don’t have the ability to reach as many people in the same amount of time as they used to on cable.”
“Because of all the digital problems we have seen in the past year, there might be a bit of hesitance for advertisers to continue to, or sustain, the money they were putting into digital,” added Robert Russo. “The main problem is there is no one central third-party non-partisan measurement system, which can result in huge discrepancies.”
Procter & Gamble, for example, was so concerned about where its ads were showing up online it cut its digital ad spending in second quarter 2017 by a reported $140 million. Yet, there was still an increase in revenue (albeit a minor two percent) despite the drop in digital ad support and based on the traditional television advertising they did in the past.
”In certain pockets digital spending will continue to grow,” noted Teicher. “And since we are rooting for our advertising partners to succeed, they probably should still spend some of their budget on digital. But, according to the Advertising Research Foundation, the best mix for an advertiser is 80 percent television and 20 percent digital, on average.”
“Suddenly there has been a resurgence in television, where it is a trusted source and it is still the best and most efficient way to build a brand quickly with scale. And there is a resurgence in syndication, where our upfronts have been fairly strong,” he added. “From a 20th standpoint, we are blessed with many programs created by a studio that has really mastered targeting the millennial and multi-cultural demographic. And that makes us particularly appealing to advertisers through shows like ‘Modern Family,’ ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ our animated series, our first-run strips, and others. Here is to this upfront selling season!”