Syndies Lean On Social To Strengthen Audience Connection
Syndication’s secret sauce has always been the way daytime hosts — be it Oprah Winfrey, Regis Philbin, Judge Judy, Kelly Ripa or Drew Barrymore — connect to audiences who come back several days each week to spend time with them.
“From the very beginning, our concept was sort of like a reality show before there were reality shows where we were revealing ourselves as people to the audience in a way that wasn’t being done on television at the time,” said Michael Gelman, executive producer, Live with Kelly and Mark. Gelman started on Live as a freelance production assistant and quickly worked his way up to executive producer, a role he has held since 1987.
The difference today is that viewers connect with that talent across many different platforms at all times of day or night. While those constant connections are great in terms of building a brand, producers are now trying to figure out how to monetize them across digital and social media platforms, panelists said during TVNewsCheck’s TV2025 conference at the NAB Show New York last week.
Relating authentically to the audience is a lesson that’s been taken to heart by CBS’s The Drew Barrymore Show. Now entering season four — the show’s second in its half-hour format — Barrymore has adopted an up-close-and-personal interview style. That’s exemplified by her recent interview with actor John Stamos, in which she sat cross-legged on her studio couch, facing Stamos and looking into his eyes as they spoke about his new memoir.
“Drew is unfiltered. She interviews celebrities unlike any other host. It’s very raw. And those are the moments that travel,” said Jason Kurtz, executive producer of The Drew Barrymore Show. “She is truly herself and exactly what you’re watching every day is exactly who she is. Once you have that, it’s just about creating an ecosystem — which comprises broadcast and digital — that highlights all of the amazing things about the talent.”
Barrymore boasted some 15 million followers on Instagram when The Drew Barrymore Show launched during the pandemic in September 2020. There, she talks about everything from the show to her personal life to her beauty and lifestyle brands.
“We try not to make a big distinction between the show’s handles and her handles,” Kurtz said. “We try to create a conversation between the viewers and Drew. Her interaction is best captured in person. A lot of the pieces that go viral are when she’s just in a commercial break talking to an audience member. Just this week she connected with someone over divorce. They had a beautiful conversation and it got picked up and got a lot of love online. Last week, I think, we had almost 2 billion impressions between just four and five clips that we released between both celebrity guests and real viewers that she connects with.”
Gathering almost 2 billion impressions is impressive, but directly monetizing that is a different story. “Honestly, that’s the next phase,” Kurtz said. “That’s really what we’re looking to do.”
While that’s a huge number, making money against that on social media is not so easy to do, said Stephen Brown, EVP, programming and development, Fox Television Stations and Fox First Run.
“I think it’s rare,” Brown said. “You’ve got to have many millions of followers and then engage brands. When we do integrations and brand deals, [social media] is an add on, it’s an ‘oh by the way, we’ve got this,’ to sweeten the pot. When you’re doing social, you always have to think about the [return on investment] and how we are getting someone to come back to whatever platform to watch the show, that’s where we make the money. We don’t make it on social.”
“It’s hard to make money on digital platforms,” Gelman agreed. “Broadcast is still the main driver, but we’re always looking for opportunities. Integration is a huge value-add and some people are coming to us just for that. It’s something that’s growing but really the focus remains broadcast right now.”
Gelman remembers when interactivity meant playing trivia on the show and having people call in via a 1-800 number. “For so many years, broadcast TV was really a one-way medium — we put the signal out there and millions of people saw it,” he said. “With the advent of digital platforms, we’ve really embraced that, so every day we have people reacting to what we’re doing in real time.”
Even game shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune — produced by Sony Pictures Television, distributed by CBS Media Ventures and airing in major markets on ABC-owned television stations — rely on audiences’ relationship with the shows’ hosts to encourage viewers to keep coming back to play.
“We’re having a lot of success there with our advertisers and integration partners because that’s where we can offer more exposure and interaction,” said Suzanne Prete, EVP, head of games, Sony Pictures Television. “I think we have to, especially in today’s economic climate, offer our advertisers additional incentives.”
Wheel of Fortune has 4 million subscribers to its online Wheel Watchers club, which allows people to watch the show and win prizes from home. Jeopardy has evolved quite a bit since iconic host Alex Trebek passed away in November 2020. Jeopardy GOAT Ken Jennings was finally named sole host prior to this season after sharing duties with Mayim Bialik in 2021 and 2022.
“Our social strategy is very strong on Jeopardy,” Prete said. “We’re intentionally producing new content that’s not just clips from the show. We’re really doubling down on that strategy for our fans who love to engage.”
For Sony, that brand expansion includes Celebrity Jeopardy and Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, both of which air on ABC on Wednesday nights along with a resurrection of The $100,000 Pyramid — all shows that Sony produces. On the talent front, Jeopardy has leaned into its super champions — such as James Holzhauer, Amy Schneider, Matt Amodio and more — to bring viewers back to watch their favorites play. Wheel of Fortune’s longtime host Pat Sajak will retire after this season and Ryan Seacrest will take over as the show’s host.
“Half of America watches these two shows. It adds up to something like 2.4 billion hours of watching a year,” Prete said. “Everything we do is intentional. We don’t realize every opportunity that comes our way even though it seems like a short-term gain.”
Using online engagement to tie viewers more closely to shows is a strategy Fox has been employing for a while, Brown said.
“We kind of took a page from what Gelman does,” he said. Fox First Run produces such syndicated games as 25 Words or Less, hosted and executive produced by Meredith Vieira, and Person, Place or Thing, starring Melissa Peterman. It also partnered with CBS Media Ventures on Pictionary, hosted by Jerry O’Connell.
“On all of our game shows, we have a watch-win-play element,” Brown said. “We do something for superfans where we interview them and if one of our teams win, they win money as well. And we are doing a lot of QR code activation where you can watch behind-the-scenes content. So, when we go to a commercial, we keep the cameras rolling to reward the audience. We have to reward audiences by saying ‘thank you for being with us, here’s more of what you like’. We are doubling down on those viewers and saying, ‘please stick with us.’”
While linear ratings continue to decline as viewers’ attention is drawn to on-demand viewing, streaming and other platforms, there’s still a great deal of power in broadcast’s reach and repetition, the panelists said.
“I’m very bullish on syndication,” Brown said. “As long as there are TV stations with space to fill, there’s always going to be a need, and they can’t fill it all with news. They are going to do it with our content, and we have to provide it at a price point that’s reasonable to them, but as long as there are local stations, there is going to be syndication.”
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