Debmar-Mercury and its co-presidents Ira Bernstein (left) and Mort Marcus have their own model for broadcast syndication. They produce and test their shows in limited run on a small group of stations or a cable network. And only shows that pass the test by drawing an audience get the green light to go into full production.
Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein believe they have a better way of creating shows for broadcast syndication.
Rather than just cook up a talk show or sitcom and insist that stations sign on for two years based on a pilot or a promo reel, the co-presidents and partners of Debmar-Mercury produce and test their shows in limited runs on a small group of stations or a cable network. And only shows that pass the test by drawing an audience go into full production. Stations know what they are getting.
So far, the model seems to be proving itself.
The model for their model is Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, a domestic sitcom produced by Perry. After a successful 10-episode run on TBS and TV stations in 2006, TBS ordered an additional 100 episodes and began airing the show to record cable audiences in June 2007. It leaped into broadcast syndication in September 2008.
Marcus and Berstein doubled down with Perry, creating Meet the Browns with him. After it passed its audition, it debuted on TBS last June. And Debmar-Mercury announced just last week that it had cleared the show across 70 percent of the United States for a fall 2010 launch in broadcast syndication.
Marcus and Bernstein have also moved into first run talk with The Wendy Williams Show. After a promising test on four Fox stations in 2008, they rolled the show out in national syndication last July. Its success was confirmed with the announcement — also last week — that Fox had renewed the show through the 2011-12 season.
Coming up are two more sitcoms. One is a yet-unnamed show starring Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and being produced by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy. It will get its test run on Comedy Central next year.
The other is Are We There Yet? starring Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris). Joe Roth, Ice Cube and Chris showrunner Ali LeRoi are producing with plans for a 10-episode test on TBS next year.
The trick with the sitcoms, of course, is finding the right creative partners. They must be willing to run the risk of producing and testing the show along with Debmar-Mercury. In lieu of their normal fees, the producers retain big ownership stakes in the shows. The payoff comes when the shows settle in for long runs in syndication.
Another aspect of the business model is the speed with which shows are produced. For TBS, Perry has produced 172 episodes of House of Payne and more than 80 of Meet the Browns. That has allowed Debmar-Mercury to take the shows into broadcast syndication much more quickly than shows originally produced for broadcast networks at a pace of a couple of dozen a year.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Marcus and Bernstein discuss their unusual production and syndication tactics, promise that other talk shows and sitcoms are in the work and express a strong belief in the future of TV broadcasting — but not before chatting a bit about the latest big news in syndication.
The edited transcript:
What do you make of all this fuss about Oprah?
Bernstein: I think it’s going to be the defining moment in syndication.
That’s pretty heavy. What do you mean?
Bernstein: I would look at license fees. It’s not going to be the same.
She certainly wasn’t going to get the fees that she had been getting. Do you think that played into the decision?
Berstein: It was a small factor. At the end of the day, she is going out a winner, as the biggest ever. Why go out there and take decreases in license fees and have to get in the mud? She doesn’t need to do that.
Marcus: I don’t think it’s about the license fees. I really don’t. She doesn’t need more money. She’s done every show you can do. She’s done it for a really long time. She has got to quit sooner or later. What does two more years do for her? It doesn’t do anything for her. Now, by the way, I don’t think she’s going to do the Oprah show on OWN.
Marcus: She gets a 5 rating in syndication, right? If she does the exact same show on Discovery, it will do like a 1.2 because, no matter what anybody says, it matters where you are and, if you’re on Discovery, people won’t watch because they will be watching whatever else is on ABC. She will get a bigger number than Discovery gets now, but she won’t get to the 5. She is going to look like a failure. So, I don’t believe she is going to do that. I think what she is going to do is, when she can get her Sarah Palin interview, she will do it in primetime and they will run it all over the place.
What’s the impact on the syndication business?
Marcus: It scrambles things a little bit. But it’s a positive. It’s a good thing. It’s healthy. I would imagine that Doctor Oz and Ellen will be the two biggest beneficiaries. [Oprah] is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to the syndicated business, but with her leaving, there’ll be more new programs launched and that’s a healthy thing. The marketplace has been staid by too many of the same shows staying on for too long.
You’ve had a great deal of success with your syndication model, in which you test the shows for a limited period before committing to them long-term. Why aren’t the other syndicators following your lead?
Marcus: Hey, let them go. That’s totally fine. We take what we believe to be is a more prudent approach, which is to spend a little money and time on a test. In the case of Wendy Williams, it was a six-week live test. In the case of our sitcom model, it’s usually 10 episodes. Spend a little money, risk a little money, find out if you have got something and, then, if you do, go for it.
Think about how insane this is: A syndicator makes a three-minute presentation on a show and asks you to commit to two years.
Now a network would never commit to two years like that. They commit to six episodes. Actually, they commit to scripts, then pilots, then six episodes. And guess what? If the six episodes work, you know what you get? Another six. And if those work, what you get is, maybe 12.
If you are an NBC affiliate or an ABC affiliate and the network makes a two-year commitment for a new show based on a pilot and it goes on the air and does a 0.2, wouldn’t you be up in arms that your network made some silly decisions? You would be completely livid.
Bernstein: The studios have different objectives. The difference between us and the studios is we’re really motivated to make money, but they have a dual motivation. They definitely are motivated to make money, but they are also motivated to keep a lot of shows on the air because they have huge overheads and they literally need to show their management that they have got X number of shows on the air regardless of what each show makes.
What do you guys look for in talent? What’s your formula?
Bernstein: Somebody really funny.
Marcus: On the sitcoms, we’re trying to bring not just the people that are not just really funny, but that have a real point of view and maybe even some branding to them. They’re so big that they bring a sense of things just by their name. Most of the people we’re talking to actually don’t do TV. They generally make movies or something like that.
Bernstein: What were looking for is someone like Tyler [Perry]. We’re looking for the hat trick. When you say the name, it invokes some sort of a “I expect this.” The second part of it is they have to be able to execute and deliver what it is we’re talking about. And the last part is that, from a business perspective, they’re not trying to do this to earn $300,000 fees. They are doing it because it is all or nothing. We’re saying, you’re either going to earn $100 million or you’re going to miss and it’s not going to go forward.
You have two new sitcoms ready for testing next summer on cable. Is your plate, in terms of sitcoms, full?
Bernstein: No. For the sitcom genre, you have got, obviously, the broadcast networks, TBS, Comedy Central, USA and even FX is running comedies now. We’ll be talking to them all.
Marcus: Our plate is not full and we’re well aware of the fact that in this business most things fail, so we want as many chances as we can get. So, no, our plate is definitely not full on the sitcom side.
On the syndicated side, talk shows and things like that, there is only so much room in the marketplace. You can’t do 10 of those. So you have to be a little bit more pin-point specific and take a methodical approach.
Are you working on talk shows others than Wendy?
Marcus: Yes, we are.
Bernstein: We have a few things in development, but the deals aren’t signed.
Marcus: We’re very close to a lot of things. But, again, we tell this to everybody: If you are going to do a deal with us, we’re going to do a test.
So your model for the talk show is not all that different than your model for the sitcoms.
Marcus: Not that much.
Bernstein: Actually at 30,000 feet, it doesn’t look that different because what we’re saying is, we want to make a bet, a small bet to start and, if it works, we’re going to go the distance. If it doesn’t, everybody loses a little bit.
Now these other talk shows you’re talking about, are they for for 2010 or 2011?
Marcus: We think that ’10 is done and that the opportunity is in 2011.
You test these things normally either on a cable network or on a group of TV stations. When do you use one and when do you use another?
Marcus: In the case of talk shows like Wendy Williams, we test them on stations since they’re really being made directly for first run for the stations. We also tested Tom Green in broadcast. That didn’t work. House of Payne was tested on the broadcast stations, but Meet the Browns was tested on cable only and the next two are cable only.
Bernstein: But that doesn’t mean that if we come out with another sitcom we wouldn’t switch and test it in broadcast.
Marcus: That’s right. We’re still learning since we’re out there doing things that haven’t really been done before. So, we’re creating a new path. We make mistakes along the way, but we also learn along the way. So we’re open to doing the next sitcom in broadcast, cable or both, depending on the program.
Congratulations on the renewal of Wendy on the Fox stations. Given all of the financial problems that the broadcasters have had, did you have to change the terms of the deal significantly to get the renewal?
Bernstein: No. Wendy Williams is a cash-plus-four-minutes-of-barter show and Fox has renewed on the same terms. Basically, we’re getting a small increase because we have renewed other broadcast groups as well. We’re not Oprah. So, if you’re getting $30,000 instead of $300,000, a 5 percent increase isn’t killing anybody.
Are you getting push-back from others on the license fees?
Bernstein: You know, everything is hard. Nothing is simple, but I think that they recognize that we took a legitimate shot and we’re standing behind it and we have promoted it. If you look at the demographics — women 18-49, 18-34, 25-54 — Wendy is performing on par with the top shows in daytime and, yes, our households are low because we don’t have older women watching yet.
All the other shows with the exception of Tyra [Banks], which is really young, skews old. That’s fine. That’s what daytime is. We think we have a long life ahead of us. We just have to talk to a few of the other groups to stay on board.
Wendy got off to sort of a slow start. In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake to debut it in July?
Marcus: I don’t think so. What we’re seeing in the numbers is that the program continues to grow and sometimes it takes a little for that to happen, especially if you’re in a city where no one has ever heard of somebody. The stations that launched in July, mostly the Fox stations, are seeing better ratings and more growth maybe because it’s been on a little longer.
This is a Mort question. When we had lunch over the summer, you told me that the broadcasters don’t do a very good job in selling their medium. Could you elaborate on that?
Marcus: Well, I don’t love the question. I don’t want people to think that I think the broadcasters do a bad job, but I would say that the broadcast medium is leaderless right now.
If you think back just five years ago, there were five or six people [in broadcasting] who could stand up and defend the industry and speak about the future. Right now, there’s nobody being outspoken and talking about the problems and the issues of the marketplace.
You don’t want me to go off on a big tangent, but Ira and I believe that the [broadcast] television marketplace has a chance to really grow in the next five years and there are many reasons for it and I’m not going to get to all of them.
Well, give me a one.
Marcus: One of them is the decline in newspaper readership. I’m not talking online readership. I’m talking about picking up the newspaper and reading it. The ad running in that actual paper that you put in your hand is not as efficient as it used to be. Therefore, the local advertiser needs another place to get its message out and the television station is the best opportunity to reach the entire market.
One of the reasons it’s still the best is because the cable interconnects have been shrinking quite drastically over the last five years because of the advent of phone companies and satellite in the subscription television business. So, for example, in Los Angeles, all that cable MSOs reach is now under 50 percent for the first time in a really long time. It used to be up into the 70s.
Now if you want to reach the entire LA DMA, you have got one real choice. It’s called a TV station.
So we think the television stations have a real opportunity to grow at a higher rate than the projections have been and we believe that that’s going to happen. I want somebody to spout that and give it to every single ad executive and every single television station and beat up on the newspapers and go get the money.