The UPN-WB merger creates a rare opportunity for program distributors to work with orphaned TV stations in reshaping the business.
Syndicators left NATPE last week rubbing their hands in glee. With UPN and WB affiliates across the country suddenly left without a network, who better than they to provide these sudden orphans with programming?
That’s the obvious immediate fix for the situation many TV stations will find themselves come fall when Warner Bros. and CBS flip the switch on The CW, turning off The WB and UPN forever. But what syndicators need to think about now is how to turn this short-term opportunity into a long-term partnership.
Once the dust settles on The CW announcement, syndicators are likely to have even more newly independent stations to sell to than they first thought. In choosing affiliates for The CW, Warner Bros. and CBS don’t plan to restrict themselves to the old WB or UPN affiliates. They will present the opportunity to affiliate to every station in a market that’s willing to pay reverse compensation. That includes affiliates of the Big Four networks, which could carry The CW on digital channels or on local cable or satellite channels that they oversee.
Disenfranchised stations in mid- and smaller-markets aren’t going to have an easy time of it. Syndicators may knock down stations’ doors to sell them programming, but that doesn’t mean those shows will get ratings. Independents thrived at a time when cable was barely present and we lived in a six-channel TV universe. Today, viewers can watch off-net sitcoms and theatricals on cable any time they want. They don’t need another TV station to provide same-old same-old material for them.
In fact, just before The CW news broke last week at NATPE, Fox Programming Chief Frank Cicha and Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution President Dick Robertson discussed stations’ need to stop medicating themselves with double- and triple-runs of semi-successful syndicated shows just because it’s cheap and easy.
“It becomes a needle in your arm,” Robertson said of double-runs. “They can be a solid short-term fix, but, in my opinion, double-runs chased a lot of eyeballs to cable.”
Cicha agreed with that assessment, explaining why the Fox stations have been on such a syndication buying spree lately, acquiring both Warner Bros.’ The Tyra Banks Show and Dr. Keith Ablow as well as picking up Twentieth’s Desire package and keeping Twentieth’s Judge Alex.
That’s the point: stations, faced with a sudden and unwanted transition and desperate to stay on the air, may make ill-advised programming deals just to fill up the time. That might be a necessary evil for fall 2006, but if that programming model remains the norm, the TV stations in question could face real damage: low ad rates, surplus inventory, plunging station value and no potential buyers.
It’s in the interest of syndicators not to let this happen. They need to partner with stations, determine what they want and need, and then deliver it to them. Instead of creating yet one more talk show or one more court show to fill the endless daytime hours, syndicators and their parent studios should recognize that there are real holes in the market that they could fill and profit from for years to come.
Paul Karpowitz, president of Meredith Broadcasting, said at NATPE that the network shakeup could mean good things for smart stations. Stations have been moving back toward offering more local programming for a few years now, with many stations experimenting with local talk shows and other formats. Offering local news, sports and weather, while expensive, gives a station immediate credibility.
Perhaps a syndicator-station partnership could include creating more programming into which local content could be added. For the Olympics, NBC has created an access show, The O-Zone, that will be produced by the network and distributed to its owned-and-operated stations and affiliates. Stations have prepared hundreds of locally-themed segments around athletes and other Olympics-related topics. The network also has an O-Zone Web site that stations can customize with their brand for their market.
Before The CW announcement, NATPE was all about emerging platforms. Almost every panel, no matter what the assigned topic, ended up talking about new ways of distributing content and what that means for the business. Just because syndicators have an opportunity to once again sell programming to unfettered TV stations, they shouldn’t forget where the business is going. Everyone is trying to figure out how to make a buck by delivering content online, on cell phones or on iTunes. Syndicators could work with stations to develop programs that incorporate revenue-driving Internet components, creating an extra revenue stream for struggling stations and for themselves.
Right now, syndicators have an opportunity that is unlikely to ever come again. Before they jump in with both feet, syndicators need to sit with stations and consider the future, so both will be around to work together for years to come.