NATPE: Not just for Oprah anymore

The show is called Dream Maker, and in it, host Richard Simmons will try to make people's wishes come true, from giving guests a day off from work, to meeting celebrities or fulfilling other fantasies....
January 1, 1999

The show is called Dream Maker, and in it, host Richard Simmons will try to make people’s wishes come true, from giving guests a day off from work, to meeting celebrities or fulfilling other fantasies.

If Tribune Entertainment’s Dream Maker was filming an episode at NATPE, producers and distributors sitting in the audience would love to have a few simple wishs fulfilled – that the programs they bring to New Orleans get high clearances, great time slots and enthusiastic support from stations, advertisers and viewers.

Sometimes dreams come true at NATPE. Sometimes dreams turn into nightmares. For some, the dream is just to stay in business.

The U.S. broadcast syndication market hungers for hits, but in its insatiable appetite for high ratings and the precious ad dollars that come with them, many shows find themselves as last night’s leftovers instead of today’s main course. The pie for non-fiction opportunities (for the purposes of this article, non-fiction spans everything that’s not a talk show, game show or dramatic series) has grown bigger, but the slices are getting smaller.

Yet for all of the good ideas gone bad, for the pile of carcasses of talk show host-wannabes who didn’t live up to expectations, when a show like Worldvision’s Judge Judy (produced by Big Ticket Television) comes out of nowhere to revive the courtroom genre and become the highest-rated show on first-run syndication, it reminds everyone, big player or small, why they’re in the business.

The market has been divided into the haves – the King Worlds, the Paramounts and the like, which compete in high stakes, head-to-head battles for key prime access hours; and the have-somes – the dwindling number of independent distributors who struggle for survival by supplying shows to fill in the nooks and crannies of tv stations’ schedules on the weekends.

Higher expectations but lower ratings, increased competition in the daytime hours from cable, and the broadcast networks’ usurping of successful non-fiction formats like newsmagazines, are forcing program suppliers to develop new spins on well-worn themes driven by engaging personalities and meeting specific niche needs for local markets.

These factors result in invoking the time-honored practice of copy-catting current hits (Judge Judy has produced a round of courtroom a-go-go), or targeting specific demographics that appeal to advertisers. Tribune calls Dream Maker – produced by L.A.’s Vin Di Bona Productions, Richard Brustein and Working Dog Productions – ‘empowerment tv,’ borrowing from talk shows, games shows and lifestyle shows to create a new genre, while still appealing to audiences who typically watch those other programs. Worldvision’s TAC-1: Rescue Heroes marries the magazine genre with ‘wow’ reality video, in the hopes of drawing females viewers, who typically aren’t drawn to reality-footage programs.

‘The syndication market is difficult, but it’s an ever-changing and ever-evolving business that’s quick to accept a well-produced, creative idea,’ says Gary Benz, president of GRB Entertainment, which produces TAC-1 to strip on weekdays for about US$300,000 per week. ‘When something hits, it’s very exciting and it adds to the bottom line in a big way. That’s going to keep people like ourselves continuing to try to launch new shows.’

So Many Shows, So Little Time

One need only to look at the ratings for programs that were renewed five years ago compared to the numbers for programs renewed today to see how the syndication landscape has changed. A show with a two rating today would never have been renewed five years ago, but many stations are sticking with programs with even lower ratings because they fear that a replacement show won’t even reach those mediocre numbers, according to Frank Kelly, co-president, Paramount Domestic Television. A three rating is considered good today.

Typically, syndicated programs have a longer gestation period to find audiences than network programs, but that time frame is being squeezed as well, particularly for strip shows in key prime access timeslots. ‘Our proof table has shrunk from three [ratings] books to where, if you’re not there by the end of November, you’re in serious jeopardy of not being around much longer,’ says Jim Dauphinee, senior VP of programming and development, L.A.-based Eyemark Entertainment, which distributes Martha Stewart Living (produced by New York’s Martha Stewart Television) and the upcoming Dr. Joy Browne Show (produced by Eyemark).

Weekly non-fiction programs have more time and flexibility to find their audiences, because they air in less crucial time periods, but their limited exposure makes it hard to compete for high numbers and almost impossible to promote. ‘You can’t get noticed,’ says Bill Miller, president, New York-based Hearst Entertainment Distribution.

For smaller syndicators, whose shows air in off hours and on weekends, soft ratings can be a death blow. ‘The ad market is very tight and there’s not a lot of money out there,’ says Rich Sagehorn, VP, tv syndication, at Hollywood’s Associated TV International, which produces and distributes shows such as Crime Strike and American Adventure. ‘If you get no rating, then you make no money. It kills companies.’

When in Rome…

Network executives, despite conventional portrayals, are not dumb. They are highly sensitive to the economic realities of production, and have learned that newsmagazines are cheap to produce. By littering primetime with a seemingly endless stream of shows like Dateline and 20/20, networks have sated viewers’ appetites for what they once sought in the Inside Editions, American Journals and Hard Copys of the world.

‘We don’t have the resources to do it better than [networks] do,’ says Paramount’s Kelly. ‘So you look at what they are not focused on and go for that segment of the audience,’ as Paramount did by producing Wild Things, a hybrid animal/reality series which has revived the wildlife genre. In the newsmagazine format, that means going more toward celebrity-oriented programming, like Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood or Extra, or in the case of newsmags, shifting to a more tabloid editorial focus.

Richard Perin, president and ceo of New York’s MG/ Perin, a small independent producer and distributor of programs like America’s Black Forum and Brides: Celebrating Romance, thinks that the syndication market is moving toward targeted non-fiction; programs appealing to advertisers or local station ad sales departments because of the specific demographics they can bring.

‘Non-fiction is a niche market,’ says Gary Grossman, co-owner, Weller/Grossman Productions in Sherman Oaks, California, ‘and the best home for reality programming is in cable.’ Grossman – whose company also produces the syndicated series Save Our Streets and Interior Motives for Discovery – says viewers have brand expectations of niche cable channels like Discovery or hgtv or The History Channel that local stations just don’t offer. To stop more erosion to cable, he says, local stations should start thinking like cable channels. ‘Local stations and syndicators must realize that they have to fight cable’s growth just as much as the broadcast networks,’ he says. ‘And they can’t fight against it by just doing more of what they are doing now. They’ve got to turn on cable and fight back with some of the same things that they are losing viewers to.’ Grossman points to how-to shows like Eyemark’s Martha Stewart Living as an example of the type of show local stations should think about adding.

Living on the edges

Associated TV International’s Rich Sagehorn has been in the syndication business for many years, and as a representative for a small independent company, grudgingly accepts the fact that he has to pound on doors a little harder these days to sell his programs. ‘It’s not an easy job anymore,’ he says with a mix of frustration and resignation. ‘The little syndicators are being eaten alive.’ Lacking the leverage that a King World has, Sagehorn and his ilk have to be more aggressive and more resolute to get their product seen.

The syndication business used to be populated by many independent companies like ATI which shared in the wealth, but vertical integration has swallowed up many of the smaller players and those remaining have been forced to the fringes.

But there’s money to be made on the edges. Major players in the syndication game aren’t particularly concerned about weekly non-fiction programs, weekend programming or other fringe time slots. That gives the smaller players a chance to stay in the business by flying below the radar.

‘As an independent, we look for niches that the majors are not going to fill because they’re not big enough for them,’ Richard Perin says. ‘The Paramounts and FOXs of the world don’t need to deal with weekly half-hours, so that’s the crack we can live in. We still get the respect and access to the broadcast community because they still need to flush out their schedule.’ Specials, and series aimed at minority markets, are niches into which MG/ Perin has successfully distributed.

Every once in awhile, a smaller company can hit it big, as New York’s Worldvision Enterprises did with Judge Judy (see sidebar) and now with Judge Joe Brown. ‘We’re an example of a company that doesn’t own television stations, but we’re succeeding and having our best year ever,’ says John Ryan, president of Worldvision, a division of L.A.-based Spelling Entertainment.

A hit show like Judge Judy, launched in September 1996, raises Worldvision’s status to that of a respected supplier, which in turn, interests stations in new programming it has to offer. There’s no doubt that Judge Joe Brown owes some of its clearance level (over 200 markets) to the track record the company established with Judge Judy.

The Whole or the Sum of Its Parts

Station groups are very powerful players in the U.S. syndication market because the ability to sell into multiple major markets in one shot lends a program immediate credibility, and that helps it further along the sales process. Vertically-integrated companies like Tribune Broadcasting get a first look at the programs of its subsidiary, Tribune Entertainment. Tribune Broadcasting acquired Dream Maker, giving the show clearance from the get-go in 18 markets and over 36% of the country, including New York City and Los Angeles. ‘Getting that group deal is the key to launching a project in today’s market,’ says Dick Askin, president, Tribune Entertainment.

Not all vertically-integrated companies follow the same formula. Paramount does not offer its programming on a first-look basis to upn stations, nor does Eyemark, a division of CBS, even though several of its shows air on key stations owned and operated by CBS. As well, Tribune stations are not obligated to take its entertainment division’s programs. Had they passed on the show, Tribune Entertainment would have been free to offer it to competing stations.

‘We try to do it on a market-by-market basis because we’d rather be with a station that’s really enthusiastic about having a show like Judge Judy, as opposed to airing it on a station that is being told they own it from the powers that be,’ Worldvision’s Ryan adds.

Smaller Pieces of the Pie, But More Pies to Eat

Companies just would not be in the syndication business if they couldn’t make a buck at it. But the squeeze for ad revenue from barter deals has had distributors looking elsewhere to make up deficits and increase profits.

‘We look at first-run syndication as the start of a cycle,’ Hearst’s Bill Miller says. ‘If you create the idea with the international market in mind, it can potentially turn out terrific if you design it correctly.’

Miller considers the U.S. syndication market as one leg under a table, with other legs being international sales, international coproduction money, licensing, and other ancillary possibilities, such as publishing. If you don’t have more than two of these legs, the table doesn’t stand, Miller says. For its non-fiction children’s series, Popular Mechanics for Kids , Miller doubts that U.S. syndication alone covers the negative costs. The series is produced by Montreal-based Coscient/Astral Productions in association with Hearst. International interest in the series, Canadian coproduction funding, merchandising potential, and having enough original episodes to eventually strip it on a cable network, allows Hearst to undertake the production with only limited financial risk.

‘I consider syndication as sort of a farm system, because if I can get in there and don’t have to go head-to-head with some of the big boys who can knock us off with promotional support, I may build a groundswell,’ Miller says. Similar merchandising and publishing possibilities with the weekly lifestyle series B. Smith With Style and Celebrity Homes and Hideaways (both produced by Hearst) provide the necessary legs to produce them for syndication. Similarly, strong international potential was a key reason behind Paramount producing the cost-prohibitive Wild Things, reported to cost about US$325,000 per hour.

Fulfilling the Dream

Whether distributors come to New Orleans with elaborate booths, or show up with hat in hand, they all deal with the new realities of an overcrowded marketplace, the likelihood of lower ratings and less ad revenue, and the pressure to succeed immediately. Despite the predominance of the powerful elite, there’s still room for smaller operators to be successful if they deliver good programming.

‘There are more people in the syndication business so you have to be satisfied with singles and doubles rather than home runs,’ Paramount’s Kelly says. ‘If you get a hit, everything turns around. If you can create something and find a niche in the market that isn’t being addressed, and then break it out, you’re really off to the races.’


The How-To on How-Tos

Flick the remote control along 60 plus channels any weekday afternoon, and you’re sure to cut through a swath of how-to shows on cable. Relatively inexpensive to produce, how-to/cooking/home improvement shows are a mainstay of cable and public tv programming, evergreens which channels can milk for years.

For those reasons alone, one would think that how-to shows would be a syndication staple. However, it has only been of late that this genre has gained a toehold.

The most successful of the how-tos, Eyemark Entertainment’s Martha Stewart Living, has been on the air since 1993 and has evolved from a weekly program, to a daily half-hour strip in 1997, and now, beginning in January, a full one-hour strip. The half-hour program was seen in 92% of the country; the re-formatted hour show is projected to have similar clearances.

Switching from a half-hour to hour program in mid-season is a challenge, but will not weigh down the series’ budget. The extra half-hour raises the overall budget only an additional 25-30% (show spokespeople at Martha Stewart Television would not disclose budget numbers) because new segments, such as Stewart responding to viewer’s questions, do not add significantly to the show’s production costs.

Martha Stewart Living works primarily because of the imposing presence of the show’s namesake, who has become a brand name herself. Peter Mark, executive in charge of production, New York-based Martha Stewart Television, believes the success of how-to as a mainstream syndication genre rests upon the timeslots in which programs are aired. ‘We’re predominantly a morning franchise,’ he says. ‘It’s a program that makes you feel inspired to want to go out and work on a project, or create a wonderful meal, or something along those lines, which is hard to do at two or three in the afternoon, because at that point you’re not really watching tv to be inspired.’

While not posing immediate threats to Stewart’s reign over how-to, a new generation of design shows hope to establish themselves in syndication. Weller/Grossman Productions in L.A., which produces numerous how-to shows for Discovery Channel, HGTV and other cablers, hopes to bring its expertise in the genre to syndication with a as-yet-unnamed design show targeted to urban audiences hosted by actor T.C. Carson (Living Single).

Hearst Entertainment’s B. Smith With Style, hosted by former fashion model and restaurateur Barbara Smith, airs weekly in 165 markets reaching 90% of the country. Hearst plans to bring Smith into other Stewart domains, such as publishing.

Syndication Winners: Judge Judy & Worldvision Enterprises

The first time Larry Lyttle, president of L.A.-based Big Ticket Television, saw Judge Judy Sheindlin, he knew he had to sign her. What he never could have imagined was that within three years, Judge Judy would stand atop first-run syndication ratings, beating out even the mighty Oprah. ‘In this business, the smart person who does what I do doesn’t know what’s going to work; the smart person knows what’s not going to work,’ Lyttle says.

Judge Judy is the hottest show in syndication, garnering ratings of 8.7 G.A.A. during the important November sweeps period. Her success has revived the courtroom genre, now populated by the likes of The People’s Court (produced by Warner Bros), Judge Mills Lane (produced by Rysher) and Judge Joe Brown, another Big Ticket production. Two other courtroom shows are in the works, including a revival of Divorce Court.

Judge Judy’s ascension is particularly notable because the show took two years before it found a following. Launched in September of 1996, it averaged a paltry 1.4 rating throughout its first year before climbing to a 2 by year end. Last year, it jumped to 5.

Lyttle knew he had a good product when he launched the show, but had no expectations of how it would perform because the courtroom genre had been retired for six years. Judge Judy arrived on the scene in the wake of the prolonged O.J. Simpson case. Its no-nonsense proceedings served as a stark contrast to that tv trial. Case resolution offered closure that people couldn’t find on issue-oriented talk shows. The distinct personality of Judge Judy herself added to a winning formula.

‘Going in the door there were lots of concerns,’ Lyttle says. ‘To be successful in television is a combination of having guts, having the finances and resources to act upon your guts, having good subjective judgment and having a lot of luck. ‘

Big Ticket produces about 200 episodes a year with a weekly production budget ranging from US$200,000 to $300,000. Worldvision, Judge Judy’s distributor (and Big Ticket’s sister company under Spelling Entertainment) originally offered it on a barter basis just to get it on the air. How times have changed. Judge Judy is now cleared in 96% of the U.S., and is sold on a lucrative cash-plus-barter basis.

Lyttle doesn’t claim to have re-invented the wheel. As is the case with Judge Joe Brown (which has higher ratings than Judge Judy had in its first season), he has allied himself with intelligent, interesting personalities about whom audiences care.

‘I can’t say that any of our shows are highbrow from an intellectual plane, but they are highbrow in that they engage people’s attention.’

Meanwhile, when you distribute the highest-rated show in first-run syndication, people return your phone calls. And a lot of people have been calling back Worldvision Enterprises lately.

Having put itself in the front ranks of first-run syndication distributors with Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown, it hopes to keep its hot streak intact as it brings TAC-1: Real Heroes to natpe.

TAC-1, produced by GRB, is a reality magazine program profiling elite teams like hostage rescuers whose daily job is to be heroes. It incorporates ‘wow’ reality footage which demonstrates their daring efforts.

Having two current hits in its back pocket helps garner station interest when Worldvision brings a new show to market. ‘We’ve become a respected supplier,’ Worldvision president John Ryan says. ‘We’ve delivered programs that work. Stations respect our judgment because we’ve struck a couple of chords that really seem to be performing for them.’

Reality Check

Normally, broadcast networks air conservative programming and syndicators act as their more tabloid-oriented evil twin. In the case of reality video shows, the reverse is true. One need only to watch fox’s reality programming, from World’s Wildest Police Videos (Paul Stojanovich Productions) to World’s Worst Drivers: Caught on Tape (Nash Entertainment), as proof.

Reality-based syndicated programs like Paramount’s Real TV and Wild Things are examples of programming which use dramatic video to drive stories.

Wild Things executive producer Bertram van Munster merges a reality sensibility which he honed from his work on Cops, with elements of the traditional animal series, to re-define wildlife programming for audiences that have become used to, and now expect, how’d-they-do-that footage. ‘A lot of wildlife films have been made by people who like wildlife but are not necessarily good filmmakers,’ he says. ‘I think the standard in wildlife filmmaking certainly left a lot of room for improvement.’

Because footage is shot around the world, Wild Things, now in its second season, is costly to produce (a typical budget is US$325,000 per episode for 22 episodes a year). Paramount went into production of the show with the intent of creating a product that would have strong international appeal.

Real TV exists primarily because people happen to have cameras rolling when amazing things happen. Real TV executive producer Ron Vandor differentiates his show from its primetime reality cousins in that Real TV is less a video clip show and more a storytelling show stemming from unique and interesting footage not seen by viewers everyday. ‘Context is important,’ he explains. ‘People are willing to look at video that is shocking if… it tells a story that is gripping and emotional about survival, heroes or real people caught up in situations that they had no idea they would face, and somehow overcome them.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.