The just-concluded NATPE conference underscored for me the central problem of the broadcast syndication business: the big studios’ apparent unwillingness to spend big dollars for big shows, ones that could take their place as evening news lead-ins or in prime access. While this was the second year a row that NATPE came and went without any “big stage” show emerging, that doesn’t mean none will. “The drought will not continue,” says Hearst’s Emerson Coleman.
If I learned anything at NATPE in Miami Beach this week, it was that everybody loves Frank Caprio. He oversees a municipal court in Providence, R.I., and over the years his proceedings have become something of a YouTube sensation.
I spent a half hour watching him on YouTube this morning and I get it. If a court show can be unique, this one is.
At 80, Caprio reminds me of the late Vincent Gardenia. He presides with a light-hearted and mostly soft touch, dispensing justice and advice to traffic scofflaws and petty criminals. Think of him as the antithesis of Judge Judy.
Seeing the potential, Debmar-Mercury figured out how to turn the actual courtroom sessions into a TV show — Caught in Providence — and quickly sold it to the Fox Stations, assuring its TV debut this fall.
Debmar-Mercury made the announcement of the launch deal five weeks ago. That folks were still talking about it during NATPE this week is not only a testament to the show, but also to the dearth of much else in first-run syndication to talk about.
The other big syndicators — Disney/ABC, CBS, NBCU, Fox, Sony, Warner Bros. — were nearly mute.
As of late last night, CBS still hadn’t announced a clearance deal that would allow it to go forward with Face the Truth, a show that sounds as if it is seeking the ground between Maury and Dr. Phil.
Dashing the expectations of some, NBCU said nothing about a panel show featuring former American Idol star Fantasia Barrino that it has had in development or any plan to replace the failed Harry. However, NBC said today that it was bringing back the Steve Harvey talker Steve for a second season, despite its struggles.
We also heard nada from NBCU on the fate of its trio of conflict shows — Maury, Jerry Springer and Steve Wilkos. That might be because the shows’ principal outlet is Tribune Media and that group may be hard-pressed to make any kind of costly long-term financial commitments with its sale to Sinclair pending.
Warner Bros. was still holding out hope that it would strike a deal that would allow it to move ahead with a comedy show with Jane Lynch, but the betting was against it.
Here at TVNewsCheck, we had heard that Sony would announce Police Patrol, a Cops-like show comprising the best of PD Live, the popular live reality show on A&E. Sony’s John Weiser told me Wednesday that the announcement was awaiting the final go-ahead from A&E.
Sony did make another kind of news. It said it would handle distribution, marketing and sales for Tegna’s in-house program production arm, which has so far come up with Daily Blast Live, Sister Circle and Sing Like a Star.
It sounds like a nice deal for both parties. It allows Tegna to focus on the creative and gives Sony something to do while it develops another show or two of its own.
The silence of the major players left room for minor players to make a little noise. On Monday, two old syndication pros — Barry Wallach and Joe DiSalvo — said that they had sold True Crime Files to Tribune and Sinclair, which together supply enough reach to guarantee its rollout this fall. Cable’s Investigation Discovery is assembling the show from its vast library of murder and mayhem.
Speculation is that True Crime will bump off Warner Bros.’ Crime Watch Daily, but Warner Bros. was not confirming that.
Ritch Colbert, Dave Hutchinson and Josh Raphaelson, aka PPI Releasing, were pushing ahead with an Americanized cut of Cityline, Rogers Broadcasting’s long-running and polished Toronto-based lifestyle show featuring Tracy Moore.
Raphaelson told me they were encouraged by how well the show has performed in 14 markets since last September and believe they can expand its reach to as many as 40 markets this year. The show is offered in hour and half-hour formats.
I saw some other shows — schedule fillers — that are so low-rent as to make Maury and Springer look good. I will not identify them or their distributors, assuming, perhaps foolishly, that broadcaster will have the good sense not to pollute the ether with them.
I would point out that there is nothing special about NATPE anymore. Broadcast syndication, such as it is, is becoming a continuum. Expected announcement that didn’t materialize this week may come in the days and weeks ahead. We will wait and see.
What NATPE did for me is underscore the central problem of the broadcast syndication business: the big studios’ apparent unwillingness to spend big dollars for big shows, ones that could take their place as evening news lead-ins or in prime access.
The risk associated with such shows has always been great. But as the broadcast audience has dwindled, the risk has mounted. Neither syndicators nor broadcasters, who are expected to help foot the bill through license fees, are eager to gamble. They can’t stand the losses anymore.
At CBS Television Distribution’s Fontainebleau cabana on Tuesday, President Paul Franklin told me it’s frustrating. “How do we create the next hit? How do we produce a show in a cost-effective way that stations will want to pay for?”
The prevailing strategy seems to be: Try as many modest productions as you can and hope one catches fire. After all, Judge Judy was once just another court show and Jeopardy was once just another game show.
If a studio invests big bucks, it will want the best time periods in late afternoons and prime access on the best stations. But those slots are already taken by seemingly indestructible perennials like Judy, Dr. Phil, Ellen, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and Entertainment Tonight.
Exacerbating the situation is the balkanization of broadcasting. It’s great that station groups like Tegna, Scripps (Pickler & Ben) and others are producing their own shows, but when they do they gobble up time periods on at least their own stations and shrink the opportunity for big-budget shows from the studios.
Ira Bernstein, co-president of Debmar-Mercury, expressed the concern while moderating a NATPE panel that included three broadcaster-producers — Larry Wert of Tribune, Ken Reiner of Raycom and Brian Lawlor of Scripps.
“It’s a bit of a Catch-22,” said Bernstein. The stations are producing more of their own programming because they aren’t getting enough from the studios, he said. But the more the stations produce, the less likely the studios are.
“When we come to the market and say we are going to develop a show, we need to clear the whole country for it…. If the local shows were not being produced, the studios might come out with more.”
It’s all enough to make one conclude that the first-run syndication market is hopelessly moribund. But maybe not.
I had a meeting with more than a dozen broadcasters and syndicators this week. The last was with Emerson Coleman, SVP of programming, at Hearst Television.
Coleman is absolutely convinced that the studios will be back with what he calls “big stage” shows, possibly as soon as this summer. His certainty comes not only from talking to the studios, but also to agents who represent top talent who are still eager for a shot in broadcasting and the big money they think they can make.
The argument that there are not enough time periods for new shows doesn’t wash. For the right show at the right price, broadcasters will make room by pushing out some poorly performing shows.
Coleman said he was disappointed a show featuring Tamron Hall, the former NBC News anchor and one-time host of the third hour of Today, Today’s Take, was not going forward.
Yes, for the second year a row, NATPE came and went without any “big stage” show emerging, Coleman conceded. But that doesn’t mean none will. “The drought will not continue.”
As Coleman was the last executive I spoke to before I headed for Miami International, he made quite an impression. So, as I sit here today, I’m thinking that despite the challenging economics and limited access to good time periods, big-time syndication is not dead, just badly wounded.
In any event, Frank Caprio, I think, will be fun to watch.