There are a number of reasons that fewer stations want to ante up big bucks for syndicated shows with high-profile hosts. The recent cancellations of programs with Katie Couric, Queen Latifah and others has them looking for lower-cost alternatives that include developing their own shows, maybe in partnerships, and trying projects in the real-people genre.
The single-host, big-budget syndicated talk show isn’t dead, but it certainly is ailing.
This fall, for the first time in recent memory, not one studio-produced show of the order of Oprah Winfrey or Disney-ABC’s Katie or Sony Pictures Television’s Queen Latifah will debut in broadcast syndication. Even Tribune Media’s hoped-for talk show with Craig Ferguson, which it had been pitching to stations for prime access, was iced earlier this month.
Recent flops have made stations skittish about paying the high license fees the studios need to offset hefty production costs.
“It is getting more challenging,” says a syndication executive. “Stations are saying: ‘If you’re going to give us a daytime show that’s unproven, we’re not going to pay for it what we used to.’ ”
Sean Compton, president of strategic programming and acquisitions at Tribune Media, speaking on a NATPE panel yesterday, said he was wary of the big-budget shows. Before signing on for one, he said he would look for lower-cost alternatives, possibly in partnership with other station groups.
“It makes sense for us to come in at a lower annual cost before taking a risk at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. We had some Katies and some Queen Latifahs and that was a slap in the face,” said Ken Reiner, VP of programming at Raycom media. (Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, the preceding quote was mistakenly attributed to Sean Compton of Tribune Media.)
The big-budget shows come with a demand from the syndicators that stations sign on for two years. If that’s the case in the future, you can count out Scripps. “Katie was the last two-year deal we will every do,” said Bob Sullivan, the group’s VP of programming, also on the NATPE panel. “It just killed us in daytime. We’ll do a one-year deal with the studios. We’ll test it out. If it does well, the studio has leverage with us. So good for them.”
Another obstacle to the big-budget show is that Big Three affiliates, the normal outlets for such shows, simply don’t have much room, especially at 3 or 4 p.m. where the programs have the best chance of success.
“The [owned and operated stations] don’t need an early fringe show,” says Ira Bernstein, co-president of Debmar-Mercury, which produces and distributes shows including Wendy Williams. “NBC has Ellen and will continue with that. CBS has Dr. Phil and Judge Judy. ABC has General Hospital and [the panel talk show] The FAB Life.”
The FAB Life with Tyra Banks is launching this fall on many former Katie stations, including the ABC Owned Television Stations at 2 p.m. But Disney-ABC is pitching it to stations as a 3 or 4 p.m. show.
And station groups have been eating up afternoon time slots with local news or their own shows. Scripps, for instance, launched the homegrown The Now at 4 p.m. in several of its markets.
“You have large station groups producing for themselves, which eliminates even more time periods,” says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming at Katz Television Group.
Even some of the major groups are looking for less costly alternatives to big-budget talk shows.
The latest example is the CBS Television Stations. It opted for the comparatively low-cost CBS Television Distribution court show Hot Bench to replace Queen Latifah in some markets, rather than go with the more expensive panel show Man in the Middle. CTD had been selling that show with Jerry O’Connell to stations for 2015.
“Stations are looking for a show that will give them a good news lead-in and hold their numbers, more than anything,” says Dan Wilch, SVP of consultation at research firm Frank Magid Associates. “I don’t think they care that much what genre it is.”
Still, the single-host, big-budget shows like Oprah that can generate billions of dollars for syndicators and stations over many years may be too enticing for studios and stations to resist for too long.
“For studios, first-run talk shows aren’t profitable until their third year,” says Carroll. “But, assume you make it to a third year, that show will get more robust license fees. And it will get time slot upgrades, which raises the value of the barter in the show. If you do that with a two- or three-year renewal, you’re building an annuity.”
Stations will also come around if they think they see a winner, says Bernstein. “For new shows, [stations] are a little hesitant to be overly aggressive. But, the minute a station feels like they have to have a show, they’ll pay for it.”
“You are asking stations to make a huge commitment, so [a show] has to make people say, ‘Wow, I want that show,’ says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “If people are saying, ‘Eh, I’ll try it,’ you can’t launch a show like that.”
If single-host shows do stage a comeback, Magid’s Wilch thinks those shows will look less like Ellen and more like Dr. Phil.
“I suspect what we will see in the next few years is more focus on real-people genres, both because they are cheaper to produce than celebrity-driven shows and because audiences are hungering for them,” he says. “Going back to Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael and early Oprah, that’s what launched the talk show explosion.”