Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury (center), says that station groups that produce their own shows and, in some cases, leave them on the air longer than they deserve, are making the tough syndication business even tougher. Fellow panelist Bob Sullivan, the chief of programming for Tegna, one of the do-it-yourself station groups, saw thing differently. The full TV2020 panel (l-r): Frank Cicha of Fox, Ken Werner of Warner Bros., Marcus, Arthur Hasson of Sinclair and Bob Sullivan of Tegna. (Photo: Erica Keane).
NEW YORK — Mort Marcus is annoyed.
Speaking on a panel yesterday at TVNewsCheck’s TV2020 conference in New York, the co-president of Debmar Mercury made it clear he isn’t happy with his dwindling opportunities to peddle first-run shows in broadcast syndication because station groups like Tegna are producing their own programming.
“That, excuse me, is fucked up…. At the same time, that’s the way it is.”
Marcus also complained that station groups seem to stick with their own shows longer than shows they license from the outside and “have more tolerance for lower ratings.”
And that, too, tends to block opportunities for outsiders, Marcus said. “I don’t know any way around that.”
Fellow panelist Bob Sullivan, the chief of programming for Tegna, one of the do-it-yourself station groups, immediately challenged Marcus.
He pointed to Tegna’s talk show T.D. Jakes, which debuted last year. “We bore the full cost of that and took a hard look at it after season one and much like you would have … we just said it doesn’t make sense to go forward with season two unfortunately,” he said.
The panel, which was moderated by Warner Bros. syndication head Ken Werner, included the top programming executives of two other station groups, Frank Cicha of Fox Television Stations and Arthur Hasson of Sinclair.
But since Fox and Sinclair generally work with established distributors, it was left to Sullivan to defend Tegna and the handful of other groups that are trying to produce shows on their own or perhaps with other station groups.
“Our mission has changed [to] where we are trying to control our destiny a little bit more,” he said. This fall, he said, Tegna launched three new home-grown shows, two live Monday-through-Friday shows, Daily Blast Live and Sister Circle, and a weekly, Sing Like a Star.
Tegna looks at its production assets and talent and asks whether it can make “a quality show” for less than what it would cost to license a show. “And the answer we found to that is yes. So, the road to profitability is a lot quicker.”
The traditional syndication model is not broken, he said. Tegna remains interested in the output of the major Hollywood studio and independents like Debmar Mercury. “But we are equally interested in what the brain matter inside of Tegna can come up with on our own. Each one comes with different business models.”
The strategy is not meant to be “an affront” to the syndicators, he said, “it was meant to be …an additive element.”
They need to change their way of thinking and see us not as a new competitor, but rather as a “broadcast group that wants to do the absolute best in can for its customers.”
“If a show is not performing, then we need to find a replacement for it. It doesn’t matter if it [is] one that we created in-house or coming from a studio. It’s that simple.”
Marcus suggested that Tegna and the other groups may not fully appreciate what Debmar Mercury does. Unlike the in-house shows that can be quickly greenlit by a couple of executive, he said, Debmar Mercury has to first sell itself on the merit of a show and then convince an outsider.
Debmar Mercury also tests its shows on air in partnership with broadcasters like Fox before fully committing to them. “We have had plenty of failures,” he said, but “our success rate” is greater because of the hurdles the shows have to overcome before they get to air.
Fox’s Cicha said he really doesn’t care where the shows come from — Fox, some other major studio or Debmar Mercury. He has a simple formula: “The right show, national launch, tomorrow.”
He said he likes to test his shows on air before making full commitments as a way of saving money. “Expensive failures now are more expensive than they used to be. We have to be very mindful of that. Being on the hook for a long time can … be a detriment.”
Guided by Werner’s questions, the programming executives also discussed the lack of off-network sitcoms and the need for shows that give schedulers more flexibility.
The death of quality off-network sitcoms is being felt by Fox, CW and MNT stations that need to fill their early evening block (6 to 8 p.m.).
Werner said that it is a period when many viewers prefer light entertainment.
But Marcus said that that is not necessarily so. “You can say it should be funny, but it doesn’t have to be funny — there are lots of shows between 6 and 8 that are working well that aren’t funny. Entertainment Tonight does just fine.”
Cicha agreed, saying that Fox may turn to local news and first-run informational programming like TMZ or newcomer Page 6 TV. “You don’t see that in prime as much, especially early prime.”
Cicha also called for shows that can run in multiple dayparts — “stuff you can sort of pepper your schedule with.”
Distributors of shows don’t know everything, he said. Sometimes they pitch shows for a certain daypart that end up working better in another.
Sinclair’s Hasson agreed that it is nice to have shows that can be plugged into schedules in more than one place. “That makes sense.”
Hasson also said that he is looking for shows with “ancillary benefits.” For instance, he said, Sinclair is running the new Daily Mail TV, a show built on the gossip tabloid of the same name.
Hasson said the show has proved a good source of news items for Sinclair stations’ local newscasts. “I think we run Daily Mail pieces in 30, 40 markets in the morning, and I think we will run some of the scoops in our later newscasts.”
Read all of TVNewsCheck‘s NAB 2017 news here.