Current network churn is an opportunity for syndicators to become involved in TV stations’ interest in local programming.
As stations get closer to deciding what they are going to do this fall—The CW or Fox’s My Network TV or independence—syndicators would be wise to listen closely now to what they are saying.
Stations—from network affiliates in large groups to lone independents—all want to be more local. Without local news, programming and branding, TV stations look no different from cable outlets. And that, broadcasters say, is ultimately bad for business.
Gannett is a leader in the trend. It airs such shows such as Colorado & Co. on Denver’s WUSA and THV This Morning on Little Rock’s KTHV. Colorado & Co. allows advertisers to participate in segments that inform viewers about local products or services. It wins the hour in the target female demo, says station manager Mark Cornetta.
The current network churn gives stations lots of options for fall and thus the oppportunity to remake themselves into something new and better, largely on their terms. And it gives syndicators a chance to fill in the gaps with smart programming that meets stations’ needs and their desire to be more local.
Syndicators could, for instance, work with stations to produce national programming that complements local programming. For example, NBC produced the OlympicZone in tandem with its owned stations and affiliates, giving stations network-produced material that could be hosted by local anchors and supported with profiles of local athletes. NBC Universal also distributes a weekly medical show, Your Total Health, that lets stations customize the program with local segments.
And remember Group W’s PM Magazine? It was a syndicated half-hour magazine show in primetime access that allowed stations to use local hosts and mix local segments with the national ones. It hit its high-water market in the mid-1980s with more than 100 participating stations, but ultimately succumbed to the onslaught of celebrity and tabloid shows.
Diane Sutter is owner and GM of WZMY in the Boston market. She is working hard to build the independent station on the back of local programming. “It’s about creating a local niche in your marketplace and serving your viewers in a way that network affiliate TV simply can’t, because you wouldn’t have the inventory to do this,” Sutter says . “We control 100% of our inventory, so we can create local programming.”
Local programming is expensive to produce, but Sutter is doing allowing advertisers to play a role in many of her station’s shows. WZMY’s My New England, for example, takes viewers on tours of local sites, while incorporating advertisers into the segments. “We’re looking for ways to create programming that specifically meets the needs of the advertiser while providing viewer benefits,” she says.
Right now, Sutter is trying to decrease her reliance on syndicated shows, but only because “syndicated” in her mind is a synonym for “national.” It doesn’t have to be.
With 18 WB affiliates and six UPNs, Sinclair is a monster in syndication. And Sinclair CEO David Smith has made it clear that he wants his stations to be more locally-oriented and that he hasn’t been happy with either of his time-consuming networks, The WB and UPN.
In January, when The CW was announced, Smith issued a statement saying the merger will “create greater programming opportunities in terms of serving the local viewer, in areas such as sports and locally produced events.”
Sinclair will be the first and largest domino to fall as TV stations realign themselves over the next several months. At the Bear Stearns media conference in Palm Beach, Fla., yesterday, Smith told investors he would make a decision on network affiliation by the end of this week. “To some degree, we are the linchpin that’s going to make or break one of these guys,” he said.
I expect that because Sinclair has so many stations and duopolies, it will be cutting deals with both The CW and My Network TV. But at the media conference, he indicated a strong preference for the less-is-more network approach of My Network TV.
“If you were a newcomer into this business who had never owned a station before, what call would you make?” Smith asked. “The common-sense view from the outside world is you have to go to Fox. Again, they’ve demonstrated historically capacity to do things outside the box and create huge wealth and value. You can’t discount what they are capable of doing.”
As the TV landscape makes its next shift, it’s time for syndicators to stop churning out more talk and court shows, and produce programming stations want and can use to build their businesses and serve their communities.