I look at broadcast TV’s schedules and I see a lot of junk cluttering up the grids. I mean lousy shows that may make money, but that drag down the overall broadcast day and make the station and the industry looked seedy and desperate. Stations need to clear out the junk and make room for other programs that draw viewers and make money without sacrificing respectability, and they can start with NBCU’s unholy trinity of Springer, Maury and Wilkos.
Even though daytime is not the big deal it once was in broadcasting, it is still a significant source of revenue and it serves as a conduit for carrying viewers into the dayparts that really count — the evening news block, prime access, primetime and latenight.
In other words, daytime still matters.
Yet, I look at TV schedules and I see a lot of junk cluttering up the grids. I mean lousy shows that may make money, but that drag down the overall broadcast day and make the station and the industry looked seedy and desperate.
Stations need to clear out the junk and make room for other programs that draw viewers and make money without sacrificing respectability.
They should start with NBCU’s unholy trinity of Springer, Maury and Wilkos.
Do I need to sit here and tell you why?
Springer and Maury have been on the air for 27 years and Wilkos for 11. You have seen them and watched them devolve. You know what they are. I don’t know how much of these shows is staged and how much is real. It doesn’t matter. They’re tasteless and exploitative.
People in the biz euphemistically call them conflict shows. Back in the 1980s and 1990s when such shows first appeared, critics more accurately and honestly called them “tabloid TV” or “trash TV.”
(As I think about it, “conflict” isn’t much of a euphemism. It concedes that the whole point is not to help people who are often in need of help, but rather to provoke them to fight it out for the entertainment of others. They demean the guests and the viewers.)
They arose from the same mire that Morton Downey Jr., Sally Jessy Raphael and Jenny Jones did. You remember Jenny. Warner Bros. was famously sued in the 1990s by the family of one of her guests who was murdered by another guest after they taped a show together and things didn’t go so well. Warner Bros. prevailed in court, but that stain remains.
In those early days, such shows were so provocative and beyond the norm that they drove TV critics to great heights of indignation. TV critics would still be carping about them if the few that are left still cared about broadcasting and what stations did during daytime.
NBCU’s principal partner in the dissemination of the shows is Tribune, which supplies the necessary major market outlets. For Tribune’s WPIX New York, the shows are a big part of its on-air identify. It carries two hours of Maury, two of Springer and one of Wilkos every day.
Over the years, a few current or former NBCU and Tribune executives have confided to me that they dislike the shows and are embarrassed by them. “It’s like heroin,” one said.
It’s a good metaphor. The execs know the shows are bad for the image of their stations and the industry, but the costs of production are low enough and the ratings good enough that they can’t resist them. They are hooked.
The three shows are the worst of the lot, but there are others that are nearly as bad or problematic for other reasons. What has happened to Sony’s Dr. Oz? Charges of peddling snake oil aside, the entire second half of last Friday’s telecast appeared to be an infomercial for L’Oreal.
That broadcasters stick with these shows suggests that there is nothing quite as lucrative to replace them with, that they are stuck with them.
It’s not true.
I spoke to several distributors before and during NATPE over the last couple of weeks. They say they have plenty of ideas and are always looking for broadcasters to share in the risk of turning them into shows.
The story of NATPE this year was the emergence of several new ones with good potential.
I briefly interviewed Meredith Vieira who was in Miami Beach to talk up her new play-along game show from Fox, 25 Words or Less, which is similar to the Pyramid series.
She was genuinely enthusiastic about the show, saying it’s all about the game itself. “If people don’t like the game, all the celebrities in the world are not going to change that and my presence isn’t going to change that.”
She says she recognizes the long odds of first-run syndication. “Maybe we won’t be successful, but I have a good feeling about this game. I think it is fun, I think it is great for anybody in the family…. It’s a half hour of joy in a world that is looking for it.”
“Good feeling,” “family,” “fun,” “joy” — those are some words that I would never associate with Springer, Maury or Wilkos.
Some other shows coming to syndication this year might also merit those descriptors. They include high-profile talk shows featuring Kelly Clarkson from NBCU, Tamron Hall from Disney and Mel Robbins from Sony.
Even the new crop of court shows seems promising. MGM’s Personal Injury Court with Gino Brogdon will take the genre out of small claims, presiding over reenactments of big-money litigation with input from experts, eyewitnesses and surveillance video.
The point is, the syndicators are game. They will produce better shows, but they need more help from stations willing to take a chance and clear some space.
On a NATPE panel, NBCU’s Tracie Wilson wasn’t asked why she keeps flogging Springer and the others, but she said that increasing the number of attempts is the only way of beating the odds. “If you invest more, you’ll find more hits.”
Maury and Wilkos are sold through 2020 and NBCU tells me that it expects to renew both for years to come. Springer, too, will keep going, although in economy mode. It is now running in repeats on The CW and in syndication. Next season, new shows will be mixed into the syndication schedule.
(Springer is not resting, by the way. He now has an NBCU-distributed court show that will be debuting this fall. We’ll see in what direction he takes that show.)
It doesn’t appear that either NBCU or Tribune is interested in kicking the Springer-Maury-Wilkos habit. And even if Nexstar’s Perry Sook closes on his acquisition of Tribune late this year and becomes the new boss there, I suspect he will not want to make any moves that disrupt the cash flow. He will likely reup.
It’s a shame. Such shows are a blight. They block worthy new programming, they send the signal that broadcasting is a TV backwater and, worst of all, they exploit people.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here.