If TV stations are going to be part of the multiplatform future, they need to go after additional rights to syndicated shows.
NBC’s ground-breaking deal last week to offer Touchstone-produced Scrubs on iTunes should get TV broadcasters thinking about securing multiplatform rights to syndicated shows.
Scrubs comes out in broadcast syndication this fall. Broadcasters who bought the show shouldn’t be particularly worried about studios distributing it through Apple and other digital outlets. Conventional wisdom holds that a pay-per-download model will not affect TV viewing. In fact, most people think that running a show on other platforms only increases its exposure, and thus its ratings and popularity.
That said, all broadcasters ought to be thinking about being in the business of selling syndicated shows over the Web for viewing on computers, iPods, cellphones and other mobile devices. That means they ought to be thinking about acquiring the rights to do so. Some station groups are on top of this; others aren’t.
Those that aren’t have plenty of good excuses. But CBS’s online success with the NCAA basketball tournament last month demonstrates why stations need to start now. CBS’s Sean McManus wisely acquired all the digital rights to the tournament some eight years ago, before he even knew what the network was going to do with them. That forward thinking paid off in viewers and advertising.
“Stations have to be smart about what rights they keep and how they protect themselves,” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar Mercury Studios, which distributes Comedy Central’s South Park, Sci Fi’s Farscape and other shows.
I couldn’t find any broadcasters looking for a full package of digital rights, and it’s a safe bet that none wants to pay for them in the absence of a proven business model. But some would like the right to distribute short segments of shows for promotional purposes.
“That’s where we are going,” says Dan Stein, vice president of programming for Clear Channel Television. “We are asking more of the studios to deliver us the broadcast rights and a complementary package of elements to be used on the Web.
“We’re going to expect syndicators to bring us new elements, especially when it comes to new shows,” he adds. For example, he says, “we would have loved for [King World] to come out with 50 vignettes for Rachael Ray that we could use to promote the show on our Web site.”
At Cox Television, Executive Vice President Bruce Baker says that the only ancillary rights that Cox has discussed are those for stations’ digital channels. “We’ve not had any discussions relative to the Internet, broadband or cell phone use of syndicated programming,” he says. “My interest is not in literally carrying or re-telecasting syndicated program as much as I am interested in vignettes that would help promote the programÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¦[via] broadband or cell phones.”
That doesn’t mean Cox isn’t interested in the other platforms. In fact, Baker says that he believes that he already has the rights to simultaneously stream any show he wants over the Web, as long is it’s in his own market and it runs concurrent with the local broadcast.
“That’s not something that I feel should have to be negotiated,” he says. “Obviously, however, there will have to be discussion on that issue and we’re not to that part yet.”
Baker says it’s not the live streaming that should cause a problem, but offering shows that viewers can download and store for later viewing.
Baker is aware of the Decisionmark software that would allow broadcasters to sell downloads of any kind of show—network, syndicated, local—over the Web within their TV markets.
“I like what Decisionmark is proposing,” says Baker. “I think it’s an interesting opportunity for broadcasters, syndicators and everybody else to make your programming available to more of the marketplace. Certainly, it’s another way of protecting the business we’re in and that’s of value to both parties.”
It remains to be seen how interested syndicators and studios are in selling multiplatform rights to stations. They seem inclined to keep as many of their digital rights as possible.
That’s because the studios themselves are launching new ventures, such as Warner Bros.’ In2TV on AOL, a sort of broadband cable system with multiple channels offering heaps of TV shows. Warner Bros.—and others—feel they might limit their ability to offer library and other programs online if they’ve signed away those rights to TV stations.
Despite all the uncertainty, it would be foolish to go into future negotiations over syndicated programming only thinking about over-the-air rights.
Warner Bros. is starting to sell Two and a Half Men to stations and cable networks for fall 2007. While stations admit that Warner Bros. is in the driver’s seat because the sitcom is the most popular to come along since King World’s Everybody Loves Raymond in 2001, they should press the studio to give them some extras—at least enough to market the show on other platforms.
“It would behoove the distributor to build those kinds of things in as part of their marketing plan. If I’m the buyer of Two and a Half Men, it would help me to be able to stream a sponsored two-minute clip of the show on my Web site to tease that it’s coming on tonight at 7 p.m.,” says Clear Channel’s Stein. “Everyone is learning about these issues and taking some baby steps, but when things are moving at the speed of light, you’ve got to take some bigger steps.”