The trend of station groups creating and syndicating their own shows has proven itself as a worthy way to create cost-effective programming that speaks to local and regional audiences, according to a panel of executives who spoke Wednesday at NATPE.
Station groups are unlikely to pull back on the amount of original entertainment programming they are producing, according to panel of senior executives, who see localism as their differentiator in an increasingly disrupted media environment.
“We will continue to do more,” predicted Ken Reiner, VP programming at Raycom Media, which participates in a development consortium with Cox Media Group and E.W. Scripps. “There’s a good formula there. We’ve gotten to the point where we think the model does well.”
Brian Lawlor, president of local media at E.W. Scripps, agreed. “Our brands are local,” he said. “That’s where we are differentiated and that’s important to our long term viability.”
Economics also drive the move toward more production of shows that are syndicated across entire station groups or much of the U.S. “We are still reliant on ad revenue,” said Larry Wert, president of Tribune Broadcasting. “Content is being made with a lot of monetization runways that we don’t have access to and our ad marketplace is declining. If it doesn’t get done at the studio level where we can monetize it” syndicated programming will be unattractive.
The syndication community’s continued tendency to sell new first run shows with two year deals also hurts the industry’s ability to launch new shows, panelists said, because the habit keeps failing shows on the air well past their economic viability for TV stations.
“The length of syndicated contracts hurts creativity,” Wert said.
Agreeing with him was Ira Berntein, moderator of the session and co-president of program supplier Debmar-Mercury. “The failure [of a show] doesn’t matter as much as the length of the failure.”
Station groups have fought back, in part, by expanding the number of hours they devote to news.
Tribune has increased news by 35% in the past five years, Wert said, while Reiner noted that Raycom has upped its news schedule by 25%.
There’s a limit to how much a group can rely on expanding news, Lawlor said. “We have to be careful not to overexpose news,” he said. “There’s a good profit margin but if you expand too much you water down the product.”
Scripps responded to that need by developing Pickler & Ben, an hour-long talk strip hosted by country singer Kelly Pickler and one-time New York news anchor Ben Aaron, and which was given the green light for Season 2 on Tuesday. “The benefit of Pickler & Ben is in scale,” Lawlor said. “We started looking at when contracts would come up and we knew we would have 3 p.m. open in all our markets so we strategically planned for that.”
Scripps airs Pickler & Ben in that 3 p.m. slot where it leads into news.
Pickler & Ben, which is produced in Nashville, also offers a voice to a part of the country not often heard from on national TV.
“We are a Midwest company,” he said. “Pickler & Ben lets us be in touch with different parts of the country.”
In another attempt to produce news without watering down its local product, Scripps has developed The Now, a hybrid of local and national news that relies on content produced and shared by the company’s stations. “It allows for longform storytelling,” Lawlor said. We are trying to engage audiences in different ways.”
Asked to predict how their business will be different five years from now, Wert suggested the industry’s move to ATSC 3.0 will fuel a change in the way stations relate to viewers. “It will be all about the IP connection coming up and the business models that support it.”
Lawlor predicted much will change. “IP, ATSC 3.0 will bring an opportunity to speak one to one to people,” he said. “Measurement will be different and what will the network affiliate relationship look like?”
Reiner expects to see OTT channels that will be more localized and have bigger, better sales forces. “Our big expansion is in evolving our sales teams. We want more people on the street. We have gone through two evolutions of getting more people on the street.”
Ownership consolidation will influence the future, panelists agreed, although Reiner predicted the pressure to merge will be felt most pressingly among publicly held groups.
Wert hoped that TV will not follow radio’s example and cut down on localism to take advantage of the cost savings as groups expand. “If we look at radio in the ’90s, you saw two super groups emerge and they de-localized and self-created some problems,” he said. “I hope our industry looks hard at that.”
See more NATPE 2018 coverage here.