Creating Your Own Shows Won’t Be Easy

A few words of caution for those enterprising station groups deciding to produce their own programming rather than buy syndicated fare. Think beyond just news; be merciless — if it doesn't work, kill it and move on; and stay focused on building a strong, sustainable show for your own markets before even thinking about offering it to stations elsewhere.

This is turning into a bona fide trend. First, the ABC O&Os began producing original shows for their Live Well diginet. Then, Raycom got the idea for America Now, an hour show comprising segments from various stations. It’s a weekly now, but Raycom hopes to make it a daily and syndicate it nationally.

And the latest, announced two week ago, is that Raycom along with Cox and Scripps are developing a multimedia news program, RightThisMinute, with thoughts of syndicating it. The show will be layered with new media — social media, websites, citizen journalism. The groups are working with Magic Dust Television, a Phoenix-based TV production company run by a bunch of former broadcasters, including Bill Miller, the one-time GM at Belo’s KTVK and KASW in Phoenix.

The trend, if that’s truly what it is, is encouraging. TV stations should be producing their own programming. It allows them to leverage their own production facilities and talent and control costs.

One of the problems of relying on the syndicators to fill non-network time is that when they finally do deliver the hit, the fees would go up and up with each renewal until finally the stations aren’t making any money anymore. Those shows fall into the dreaded loss-leader category.

Stations need to go beyond news. In our interview with Bob Siegel of Advanced Broadcast Solutions this week, he said that local news really doesn’t cut it on the new mobile platforms. I think he’s wrong. Local news, if properly packaged, is perfect for people on the run looking to catch up with what’s going on around town. However, I would agree with Siegel larger point. Stations have to start producing content other than news if they want to fully exploit the many opportunities that new media are bringing.

But allow me a few notes of caution. The game is still about ratings. Station groups cannot become so infatuated with their own shows that they keep them around too long, even if the shows are somewhat profitable.


Networks and first-run syndicators are merciless. If something’s not working, they kill it and move on to the next project without looking back. Stations groups need to be just as cold-hearted.

And the groups cannot become discouraged if their first efforts flop as the odds say they will. In fact, right now, six months before the first RightThisMinute airs, Raycom, Cox and Scripps should be working  on what replaces it — just in case.

Raycom has hired Debmar-Mercury to shop America Now to other stations and I presume that Raycom and its partners in RightThisMinute also have ambitions for circulating that show beyond their footprints.

That’s nice, but they need to stay focused on building a strong, sustainable show for their own markets before turning outward. And I hope their business plans don’t count on cracking the major markets. The competition for shelf space there is fierce. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and Tribune generally aren’t looking for programming from the provinces.

If these shows make it into New York, L.A. and Chicago at all, it will likely be on stations that the FCC has already tagged for its next spectrum auction.

It would also be a mistake to count solely on repurposing talent from the newsroom or whomever the agents are shopping around. Scripps involvement in RightThisMinute is interesting because it used to own cable networks like HGTV and the Food Network and so should understand the value of seeking out fresh personalities with real expertise.

In my column on ABC’s Live Well network in February, I said that history provides some hope for home-grown programming and cited the long run of Evening and PM Magazine during that 1980s. In thinking about this column, however, it occurred to me that more recent history provides far less encouragement.

Nine years ago, Acme Communications boldly decided that it would create its own morning show for its small string of CW affiliates and other stations not affiliated with the Big Four. Well, the buzz on The Daily Buzz is not good.

Without outlets in the major markets and relegated to CWs in most places, the three-hour show ranks 182nd out of 182 nationally syndicated shows with a 0.1 rating, right down there with Byron Allen’s Career Day.

(Buzz is hardly a raging financial success for Acme either. According to Acme’s just-in 2010 annual report, the show generated net revenue of $3.4 million, $500,000 less than what Acme spent on production.}

Another example is Meredith’s Better, an hour-long women’s lifestyle show currently airing in more than 90 markets and in 70% of U.S. households. The show is not nationally rated, but last week in nine metered markets it averaged only a 1.0 share.

As I mentioned above, counting on syndicators has its drawbacks. But what the studios can deliver are the marquee names and heavy promotion that can give a show at least a fighting chance of breaking through and finding an audience.

Dr. Phil may not have been widely known when he got his own syndicated show in 2002, but he was to the viewers of Oprah and that was good enough. Rachel Ray had made a name for herself in the backwaters of cable before she made her move to broadcast syndication five years ago.

A couple of high-profile syndicated shows can prop up an entire daytime schedule and give a big boost to the evening news. In other words, there’s something to be said for Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric.

I wish there were easy solutions for broadcasters dealing with the new economic realities and trying desperately to stop the audience erosion. But, of course, there aren’t. Saving money and gaining viewers are goals often at odds.

All the broadcasters can do is try. So I applaud Raycom, Scripps and Cox and wish them well. A little do-to-yourself TV folded in with the best of Hollywood may be just the thing.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be reached at 973-701-1067 or mailto:[email protected]. You can read his other columns here.

Comments (9)

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Kathryn Miller says:

April 22, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I don’t want to dispute the basic message, but this reminds me of the arguments that Bill Paley used when he was ramping up the CBS Radio Network. The Evening Magazine/PM Magazine actually may help prove the point. Need I mention the “Fabulous Mr. Bill Show” that Tribune decided not to syndicate 1.5 decades ago?

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

April 22, 2011 at 5:09 pm

As a veteran Evening/PM producer I think Harry’s hit the nail on the head. These stations need to focus on the local appeal of these shows — and on developing local, or at least regional talent for repeatable features and segments.

Once you start playing with national distribution, then regardless of format, you’re competing with a dozen other talk and magazine-format shows for the same limited supply of celebrity interviews and headline-driven trend stories.

This proved the undoing of PM Magazine, which at launch was the FIRST AND ONLY show shooting on location with minicams, which were then a new invention. Within 5 years they were competing with Entertainment Tonight, Real People and others. Once Current Affair and Early Edition added tabloid sensation to the mix, the kindly gentle PM format could no longer compete.

These shows need time to find a unique format and voice — not to mention recruit and assemble writing and producing talent, once plentiful in local program departments which no longer exist.

    kendra campbell says:

    April 23, 2011 at 8:40 am

    There was no better place to be than the Westinghouse (Group W) stations from the 1960’s through the mid ’80’s. Stations were required to produce a daily talk show, prime-time documentaries and specials, and encouraged to have a local professional sports franchise. Local news was given the resources to do it right. The commercial load in newscasts was less than industry standards – a quaint 6 minutes per half-hour. Margins were targeted around 35% – again much less than industry standards back then or today. Mike Douglas, PM Magazine, and Hour Magazine were developed locally and then rolled out nationally. I point this out because it will take a huge philosophical change to accomplish the goals in Harry’s story. Unfortunatley the chances of this happening are slim and none.

Peter Grewar says:

April 22, 2011 at 7:33 pm

I’d also say that a bit of imagination might be in order — and a willingness to stick out some corporate necks and try ideas that are risky. The thing is…if you try to be safe and just stick to “tried and true” formats such as talk shows, my suspicion is that the result will be a number of mildly successful shows, but nothing that really breaks through. Back in the seventies, there were a few local stations (mostly in major markets) that even tried their hand at scripted programming — I remember some of the results that showed up on KING-TV in Seattle, even after more than 30 years. So, yeah, give us the talk shows…but maybe also take a stab at locally produced comedy, or even an occasional dramatic special that might have strong local interest. Yeah, most of it will end up missing…but if you hit, you could hit big.

Don Richards says:

April 25, 2011 at 8:56 am

Does the end goal have to be national syndication? To jdshaw’s point about Group W, they were charged with producing shows for their local markets. While some of their locally produced shows did make it to national syndication, most remained successful local shows that made a profit and provided the individual stations with unique programming. If Raycom does try and syndicate their programming, maybe they should just focus on medium and smaller markets and stay out of the top 25 markets, where shelf space is so precious. If the Raycom shows generate revenue for the Raycom stations and other stations in similar-sized markets are interested in airing the shows, then there’s no economic risk for Raycom and any revenue that can be generated from regional/national advertisers is gravy.

alicia farmer says:

April 25, 2011 at 9:30 am

The biggest problem in Harry’s story is captured in one of Arthur Greenwald’s sentences regarding the talent necessary to successfully produce non-news programming: “These shows…need to recruit and assemble writing and producing talent, once plentiful in local program departments which no longer exist”. The folks working in local news departments basically cover crime, mayhem, car wrecks and weather hype. That doesn’t trsnslate to real producing or innovation.

Melinda Santana-Carey says:

April 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

I have to question whether or not local stations have management in place that can actually pull off non-news programming anymore. It has literally been decades since stations produced innovative local programming beyond news programming. Therefore, do today’s GM’s even know how to recruit talent, both in front of and behind the camera–let alone manage and mentor them? Seriously? Further, do today’s GSM’s have the ability to package and sell locally produced programming beyond newsfests? Prior to going to Hollywood to work for the King brothers, I was exec producer at WBNS-TV in Columbus. We knew how to produce LOCAL in a big way. We had The Judge, Traffic Court, (Jack) Hanna’s Ark, Front Page (magazine), The Early Show, etc. Back then, local programming was king. We had the talent and expertise in place. Once option to national syndication is regional distribution. We would syndie a lot of our material from Columbus to Cincinnati and Dayton. This would help amortize some of the costs without diluting the local flavor. That could work in a lot of areas.

matt fess says:

April 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I think the thing to keep in mind is that this type of local content is what local stations need and what viewers want. Local, local , local. Problem is that corporate folks dont seem to appreciate the fact that the more digital platforms and more local content there is to sell, the need exists to completely remake sales organizations. More salespeople, more support people. Harvesting local marketing money takes time, and you simply can not expect traditional stations of sales staff’s of 8-12 or so people with a couple of support people will get it done. There should be 20 salespeople, 5 support people, and other strategic people so the people selling the product have and make the time to do it right. Stations have added 3-4 times the stuff to sell and have not changed the structure of the sales departments. Won’t effectively monetize the local content created.

Shaye Laska says:

April 25, 2011 at 3:35 pm

We have the tools, can we drive this forward?