EXECUTIVE SESSION WITH MITCH BURG

Syndication’s Strong Upfront Is No Surprise

Mitch Burg, president of the Syndicated Network Television Association, says the medium delivers great programming that viewers really value as demonstrated by both ratings and E-score research that looks at viewers' attitudes toward syndication and show hosts. And it does this, on average, for about half the cost of network primetime, yet is delivering, in many cases, ratings that are greater than network primetime. And marketers like syndication because the shows' advertising pods continue to be much shorter, generating higher recall and awareness for advertisers.

Like the broadcast and cable networks with which it competes, national syndication had a healthy upfront for the 2011-12 season. According to B&C, the upfront take grew 10% to $2.4 billion, even though one of the advertiser’s favorite syndication venues, The Oprah Winfrey Show, will be gone after 25 years.

Some of the credit for the good showing as to go to Mitch Burg, who as president of the Syndicated Network Television Association keeps reminding advertisers and their agencies of the underappreciated value of funny and informative talk, stern judges, paternity testing and comedic actors with young and loyal fans. He does so with a well-honed pitch and heaps of research.

In this is interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Burg tells why he believes that syndication is still TV’s biggest bargain. He even has some advice for broadcasters’ selling syndication barter time.

An edited transcript:


Syndication had a good upfront — higher rates, higher total volume. What do you attribute that to?

We’re looking at programming in syndication that is really highly rated these days. In fact, across much of the year, syndication had one of the top three shows in all of national television in Two And a Half Men against 18 to 49. In some weeks, it was the No. 1 show against younger skewing targets like 18 to 34. Family Guy is consistently running just behind American Idol in terms of reaching 18-to-34 year olds. The fact that we can deliver younger audiences with our sitcoms and audiences that have higher compositions of males gave us a significant advantage in this year’s upfront.

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The second function is advantageous pricings. We’re  reaching audiences, frankly, that other parts of television are not as effective in reaching.

How do you think the loss of Oprah affected the syndication upfront?

Oprah’s been a great star for 25 years, but her ratings weren’t performing as they were in the past and that creates opportunities for other shows. What you’re seeing are shows like Ellen and Anderson moving into those time slots. That creates an interesting opportunity. And CBS still has Judge Judy and Doctor Phil in those time slots and they’ll continue to have opportunity to grow.

But do you think the loss of Oprah suppressed the total upfront take?

I don’t. I think people came out with other programs. Warner Bros. came out with The Big Bang Theory. You have 30 Rock [from NBC Universal] coming into the marketplace. So, this is the nature of television. With syndication, most of our shows returned. That’s not true of network upfront and network primetime schedules.

What’s the basic value proposition for syndication? Why syndication and not network?

Our basic value equation comes down to this: We’re delivering great programming that viewers really value and we have demonstrated that through not only the ratings that come up from Nielsen, but also E-score research which looks at the attitudes that viewers have towards syndication and television hosts.

And research from Kantar shows that syndication is, on average, about half the cost of network primetime, yet is delivering, in many cases, ratings that are greater than network primetime. That’s certainly a significant advantage.

Another important part of our value equation is how our programs are formatted for national syndication. Our pods continue to be much shorter, generating higher recall and awareness for advertisers. At the end of the day, that’s what marketers are really looking for. They’re looking for people to see their commercials, to be able to understand what’s in them and, frankly, take action from them.

How do stations piggyback on what you’re doing to do a better job of selling their syndication barter time?

One of the things that stations could look at are specific national Nielsen tabs. Nielsen measures things nationally that I don’t believe are available on a local market basis. For example, they look at car ownership and intent to purchase — a key category for local television. The same thing is true for mobile phones. People look into the quality of the programming, but looking at the quality of the audience is something that perhaps can be better leveraged. 

Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?

Sure. I will give you a specific example. One of the things that concerns many people relating to television is the impact of the DVR. Indeed, what we have seen over the last three years is a 20% increase in people recording programming and more than 50% of commercials are being skipped in networks’ primetime entertainment.

When we look at the Nielsen data, we find that household penetration of the DVR is now 38%, but among new car prospects it’s almost 60%. That’s alarming. Therefore, in order to give automotive advertisers a better opportunity for their commercial to be seen, we have to look at programs that have lower recording. And we know from Nielsen and TiVo data that more syndicated programming is viewed live and that commercial avoidance is much smaller than that of network primetime. That’s something that the local stations can take advantage of.

So, any other tips for the stations?

That’s about it. I give them one tip and then I refer them to [TVB President] Steve Lanzano, who does a great job on their behalf.

Meanwhile, Oprah goes over to cable and double downs on OWN. She is now the CEO and she seems determined to turn that cable network into sort of a cable version of broadcast daytime with syndication-type talk shows.

Certainly OWN has a lot of challenges and Oprah’s involvement is something that certainly the people at Discovery are going to welcome. I don’t know if she is successfully replicating the daytime model or not.   

Well, that seems to be what she is trying to do. She’s got Rosie O’Donnell coming in the fall.

I think the addition of Rosie will make it somewhat better and everybody will be watching to see her success.

What about the 2012-13 season?

Everybody is very excited looking at the programming that’s being suggested for 2012 and 2013. Certainly everybody is looking with great interest at what ABC does with Katie Couric. Twentieth bringing Ricki Lake back to the marketplace creates another opportunity. I am seeing more talk program development than I have in a long time, than we saw last year certainly.

I guess it’s always nice when the network drops an hour in the afternoons as ABC did. It opens things up for the syndicators.

I think that they were dealing in reality. The reality was that in daytime, syndication was already dominating the ratings with shows like Judge JudyDoctor Phil and Maury Povich.

I’ll give you the last word.

Like last summer, this summer syndication is delivering 60% of the top 50 shows in all of national television when it comes to 18 to 49. Among 18-to-34 year olds, our performance is even better than that. So certainly a lot of marketers have already taken advantage of syndication strength


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