Young syndicator adapted a cable formula to create original dramas that fill a need at TV stations.
Los Angeles-based Program Partners got its name right.
The two-year-old syndicator is partnering with TV stations to give them what they want: exclusive high-quality, original dramas at a reasonable price. Other syndicators ought to take notice.
Founded by Ritch Colbert and Josh Raphaelson, the company acquired the rights to the Canadian-produced procedural crime drama DaVinci’s Inquest. After first dabbling with a cable sale of the show, they began selling it to TV stations, and they found plenty of takers.
Airing on weekends, the show consistently scores a 2.0 and higher in the national Nielsen ratings, a strong performer in today’s fragmented TV market. (Program Partners works with Sony Pictures Television to distribute the show.)
“Movies are downtrending, sitcoms are harder and harder to get because there are fewer of them, reality doesn’t work in prime, and sci-fi is not a big player,” says Colbert. “One thing that is working everywhere is procedural dramas. They are dominating network and cable.”
Riding on the success of Inquest, Program Partners is bringing two other procedural crime dramas to the U.S. from Canada: Cold Squad, a progenitor to CBS’s Cold Case, and Stone Undercover, the tale of two cops with a Moonlighting sensibility.
“Viewers still are sampling and gravitating toward procedural dramas. Why? I think it’s because they have a nice, neat beginning, middle and end. People also have suggested that in times of uncertainty, people want to watch shows in which the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose,” Colbert says.
Program Partners is selling the two shows in a block, called Crime Watch, because research shows that crime procedurals do better together, Colbert says. (See CBS’s powerhouse Thursday night line-up of CSI and Without A Trace for confirmation.)
CSI was a smash in broadcast syndication, but stations only had it for weekend airings for two years. After that, it went to cable. CSI: Miami and CSI: New York will be handled in the same broadcast-unfriendly way.
That’s frustrating for stations, which are constantly looking for ways to differentiate themselves, even on tight budgets.
Program Partners is making its shows available to stations with a 9 minutes local/5 national barter split, an attractive financial model that Fox’s My Network TV also is using.
Stations can either air the block on Sunday nights in primetime (which is what many Sinclair, Fox and other My Network TV affiliates will do) or they can run it as a late-night news adjacency, the plan of many traditional affiliates.
“Many stations want to ensure that they have seven nights a week of high-gloss, high-profile scripted content seven nights a week,” Colbert says. “That helps them promote themselves and helps the sales guys.”
Besides adopting a cable-like view in terms of offering stations original programs, Program Partners also is adopting a cable-inspired scheduling strategy.
To keep its blocks fresh, Program Partners and its Canadian supplier intend to rotate several shows with limited runs. For example, DaVinci’s Inquest, which is based on a real-life coroner in Vancouver who later became mayor, has morphed into DaVinci’s City Hall.
Although the show has just debuted on Canadian TV, the syndicator already plans to add it into its Crime Watch rotation when the time is right.
“Basically, we are borrowing a page from FX,” Colbert says. “They do 13 episodes of Nip/Tuck and then 13 episodes of Rescue Me and then 13 episodes of The Shield. They don’t have to do 65 episodes of any one show. We are taking a cable model and applying it to syndication.”
Colbert admits that the partnership thing only goes so far. If the right cable deal came along, he’d take it, he says. “We would do a concurrent cable deal for these shows, but we would never do one that conflicted with the weekend broadcast window. The thing that gave Law & Order on NBC more life was the fact that it had a cable exhibition. It gave that show more sampling and helped drive the franchise for a few more years.”
Of course, TV stations would prefer to have Crime Watch all to themselves. Says Ken Lucas, general manager of Hearst-Argyle-owned independent WMOR Tampa: “I feel the same way that any station feels. Our preference would be that there is no cable deal.”
But for now, Lucas is just happy to have original dramas that are all his own.