Cracking the U.S. Syndication Market: Bob and Martha’s ascention to the throne

When it comes to non-fiction success stories in the U.S. syndication market, home renovation expert Bob Vila (of Bob Vila's Home Again) and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart (of Martha Stewart Living) are the undisputed king and queen. They've established a foothold...
January 1, 2000

When it comes to non-fiction success stories in the U.S. syndication market, home renovation expert Bob Vila (of Bob Vila’s Home Again) and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart (of Martha Stewart Living) are the undisputed king and queen. They’ve established a foothold in a market dominated by sitcoms, talk shows and hour-long dramas, and have opened the door for others in the home reno/lifestyle genre to follow suit.

How did they do it? That’s the question on the mind of every Vila or Stewart-wannabe. Each took a different path to syndication – Vila via PBS and Stewart through exposure on cable, network and public television specials. What they share in common, however, is a transition from show host to nationally recognized brand.

Both Stewart and Vila are involved in multimedia initiatives, which means they reach viewers in shopping malls, on book shelves and through the internet, not just only on TV And while the syndicated market may have been slow to realize the implicit opportunities offered by reality shows of this genre, Stewart and Vila have made the possibilities abundantly clear.

They’re everywhere, they’re everywhere

Turn on the television, and you see her. Turn on the radio, and you hear her. Go to the store, and you can purchase her sheets, patio furniture and books. In less than ten years, the Martha Stewart brand has spread across the full consumer spectrum, reaching viewers in ways that even talk show hosts Oprah and Rosie haven’t achieved.

Stewart’s company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, oversees a syndicated TV show (Martha Stewart Living); a monthly magazine of the same name; a quarterly magazine (Martha Stewart Weddings); a syndicated weekly newspaper column and a 90-second daily radio feature (both called ask Martha); a website (; a mail-order catalogue and on-line merchandising business (Martha by Mail); such books as Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook (Clarkson Potter: 1999); and strategic merchandising partnerships with such large U.S. retailers as Kmart and Sears.

Like Stewart, Vila’s reach also extends far beyond his syndicated program. Vintage episodes of Home Again’s precursor, This Old House – which Vila hosted for PBS from 1979 to 1989 -

continue to air on TLC and Home & Garden Television. (New episodes of This Old House hosted by Steve Thomas are broadcast on u.s. public television and in syndication.) Vila also recently took on an original cable series for HGTV, titled Restore America. He has his own magazine (American Home) and a comprehensive website (, as well as ten books to his credit including his latest, Bob Vila’s Complete Guide to Remodeling Your Home (Avon Books: 1999).

When Vila left PBS in 1989, he partnered with Sears, Roebuck and Co. to form his own production company, BVTV (Sears is the corporate underwriter, while Vila maintains creative

control). Through his association with the U.S. retailer, Vila has become the spokesperson for Sears Craftsman Tools, and the commercial advertising spots have further enhanced his level of exposure.

‘The key here is visibility and the ability to reach eyeballs,’ says Ed Wilson, president of CBS-affiliated syndicator Eyemark Entertainment, which distributes both Martha Stewart Living and Bob Vila’s Home Again. ‘Because of Bob’s association with Sears, he stands for

quality. He’s reaching eyeballs through syndication and he’s reaching viewers through cable. And then you take the fact that you’ll see the magazines and books and other things, and it really rounds out the package.’

Building an empire: Bob Vila’s strategy

Twenty years ago, Bob Vila had no intention of becoming a national TV personality, much less a brand. ‘My career in media is accidental,’ he says. In the late-1970s, Vila was focused on the business of buying old homes, fixing them up and selling them. However, his restoration work on a Victorian Italiante house in Massachusetts earned him a write-up in the Boston Globe newspaper, and the article caught the attention of a producer at Boston PBS station WGBH.

Says Vila, ‘They knocked on my door and asked, `Would you do a pilot here at this house that you’ve just restored?’ I figured it was good publicity for my building business. The next thing I knew, they called back a year later and said, `We haven’t sold the pilot that we wanted to, but we’ve just sold a different pilot and it depends on you being the host.” That was the beginning of Vila’s ten-year run on pbs with This Old House.

Vila’s association with the home reno show came to an end in 1989, when he was forced to leave after a dispute with the pubcaster over his commercial endorsements. Far from a setback, though, Vila thinks the press attention of the pbs incident helped improve his chances in the syndicated market. ‘There was rather a bang of publicity that took me, a name that was already relatively well known, and threw it all over the place.’

Under the banner of his own production company and with the financial backing of Sears, Vila hooked up with syndicator Eyemark (then called Group W Westinghouse) and established a new place for himself on the television dial. ‘I think we got a little bit lucky,’ Vila says. ‘The combination of going into the syndicated marketplace with an established name at the right time are probably the two key ingredients in having given us a successful run.’ Home Again currently airs in syndication on 196 stations representing 92% of the U.S. (Nielsen Syndication Service stats).

In hindsight, Vila never seemed to have any regrets about either his stint on PBS or his eventual dismissal. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in October 1996, Patrick Reilly quoted him as saying, ‘I am at heart a capitalist. The years I hosted on PBS I compare to the years I volunteered for the Peace Corps.’

Martha Stewart’s strategy

To describe Martha Stewart as ambitious is an understatement. Over the past four decades, she has progressed from model to stockbroker to entrepreneur, steadily building her name and image. Now as she approaches 60, the well-preserved Stewart sits atop a multi-million-dollar company (reported sales at the end of 1998 were $180 million).

As chairman and CEO of MSLO, Stewart maintains a tight grip over the myriad endeavors bearing her name. She effectively wrested control of MSLO from Time Inc. in 1997, at which point her stake in the company gave her control over 98% of the voting power (Time had held onto 20% of ownership and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers had 5%). In October 1999, MSLO went public, offering 7.2 million shares at $18 per share. The company’s stock was valued at $24 by the end of last year.

Stewart’s entree into the world of syndicated television began with regular appearances on NBC’s Today Show in 1991. She had already built up a successful catering business, written articles for The New York Times, Family Circle and House Beautiful magazines and authored several books before appearing on TV, so her reputation as a lifestyle expert was not solely the creation of the medium. Stewart also launched her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, the same year.

In September 1993, Martha Stewart Living debuted as a half-hour weekly syndicated show, distributed by Eyemark. The program touches on a wide range of topics related to the home, including cooking, entertaining, crafts and gardening, and Stewart’s presence is always central.

Her syndicated program went daily in 1997, and last January expanded to an hour-long format in most markets. The extended version of the show includes such features as an ‘ask Martha’ segment, in which viewers receive answers to their e-mails or phone calls. According to NSS, Martha Stewart Living airs in syndication on 154 stations covering 87% of the U.S. market.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Stewart has not overlooked the cable market. Last September, U.S. cablecaster Food Network began airing a half-hour program called From Martha’s Kitchen. The show, broadcast twice daily, features the food-related segments from past episodes of Martha Stewart Living.

Eyemark’s Ed Wilson says of Stewart, ‘I think Martha Stewart has proven that each of the different genres – magazine, internet, radio, newspaper, television and cable on television – all compliment each other and feed off of each other . . . Martha is someone who understands her audience and her brand better than almost anyone.’

Trends in the syndication market

Is the popularity of home reno/lifestyle shows on the rise? ‘I would say yes,’ says Wilson. ‘I think you’re going to see a real growth in this type of show because Martha Stewart is having a tremendous growth spurt in her ratings. Any time shows experience growth and do good ratings, you’ll see a lot of people trying to start cloning them.’

Executive producer Robb Weller, of Sherman Oaks-based prodco Weller/Grossman Productions, agrees. ‘In our area, service and information, it’s really been a very soft market for years. Then along comes Martha Stewart, who has made terrific inroads, and so the buying market will more closely consider a service and information type of program.’ (Weller/Grossman produces a crafting program called The Carol Duvall Show for HGTV.)

Vila and Stewart had help breaking into the syndicated market in the form of a syndicator, specifically Eyemark, the syndication arm of U.S. network CBS. The advantage of getting noticed by a big-name syndicator is access.

‘They’re the ones who are really working with the networks to decide what kind of programming is going to factor in,’ Weller says. ‘I may have a good idea for a show, but it’s really going to be determined by what [the likes of] King World (Oprah, Jeopardy) or Paramount (Entertainment Tonight, Wild America) thinks is going to be right for NBC or for ABC [for example].’

However, getting noticed isn’t always easy. ‘The syndication market is basically controlled by fewer and fewer people now, and it’s because the stations in recent years have made less and less of their time available for syndication,’ Weller says, adding that consolidation within the industry has resulted in fewer syndicators. ‘We’ve been extremely fortunate that we began our little company as cable began to explode.’ Weller/Grossman produced more than 300 original hours of programming in 1999, he says. Less than 10% of their business is in the syndication market.

Rob Corona, VP of sales for New York-based distrib Hearst Entertainment, also notes the challenges of the market. ‘Obviously the syndicated market is extraordinarily tight, as far as availability of time periods, quality time periods.’ But he hasn’t been deterred by the big syndicators. ‘All our shows’ first destination is for the domestic marketplace – syndication.’

Reality programming offers distinct advantages, and syndicators are starting to notice. Corona offers this observation: ‘I think the reality program today can be an extension of a lot of what’s going on in business around the country, whether it be websites or commerce or licensing and merchandising. There is a coalescing of lots of different types of businesses other than selling spots or selling barter inventory that can provide an up side for both the station and/or the distributor.’

In Weller’s opinion, cable can take some of the credit for the rejuvenation of reality’s reception in syndication. ‘I think the syndicators are probably taking a look at the success the cable networks have had. You look, for example, at Home & Garden Television, and they have really established a strong niche. And in daytime programming, the syndicators are probably saying, `Hey, if it’s working for Home & Garden, maybe it would work in syndication.”


Debbie Travis’ Painted House

Carving a niche outside of the U.S. syndicated market

When distributor Peter Emerson of Toronto-based Oasis Pictures takes the popular home decor show Debbie Travis’ Painted House to natpe this year, he won’t be looking toward the syndicated market. ‘It’s the international marketplace we’ll be focusing on, not the U.S. at all.’

The fact that the market would attract a distributor like Emerson illustrates two points: NATPE is fast taking its place alongside the major international markets, and the real opportunities for most non-fiction lifestyle shows lie outside the narrow spectrum of U.S. syndication.

‘[NATPE] has broadened out or we wouldn’t be there,’ says Emerson. ‘For us, in the last few years, it’s been great for the Latin American market.’ He adds that more reps from Asia and Eastern Europe have been attending lately, as well as Western Europeans.

According to Painted House executive producer Hans Rosenstein, the four-year-old series, which is produced by Montreal-based Whalley-Abbey Media/Painted House Productions, ‘ended up in over 50 countries at one point.’ (The series was originally commissioned by Canadian cable channel WTN, which continues to air it.) Emerson confirmed recent sales (many of them to satellite services) in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Poland, and says satcasters in Italy and Spain have also expressed interest.

Because most international sales are made to cable and satellite broadcasters, Emerson says returns tend to be moderate. ‘They have a very small place in the schedule, and you’re normally looking at US$500-$1,000 an episode for these things, unless it’s a huge multi-country footprint. $500 would be about the lowest we would license it anywhere because administratively it’s just not worth it, up to about $5,000 an episode in Europe or Latin America on the same type of multi-territory broadcast.’

From the producer’s point of view, appealing to viewers beyond the national boundaries isn’t just an afterthought. ‘We try to produce the show with an international audience in mind,’ Rosenstein says. ‘You never, ever know that the show is produced in Montreal. It could be anywhere in the world, and we’re trying to give it that appeal. I guess that’s part of our success on the international market.’

Painted House has also found a way into the American market – via public television. ‘We did that in 1997 and we’re entering the third year now,’ Rosenstein says. wgbh is the presenting station, and through the public television distribution service (APT), Painted House reaches nearly 70% of the 349 public TV stations across the U.S., he adds.

WGBH has an ‘enhanced licensing agreement’ with the series’ producers. Rosenstein explains that WGBH has also acquired ancillary rights for the show, which include home video, merchandising and publishing in media other than books. (Travis has an existing book deal with Random House/Crown Publishing, and is currently working on the third of eight books.)

In Rosenstein’s opinion, the advantages of going the public television route are not to be underestimated. ‘I think it was a smart move on several levels,’ he says. ‘Being distributed by WGBH gave you, immediately, a lot of visibility. In this particular genre, we’re talking about programming that is generally made on a very low budget in quantity [under US$50,000 per half-hour]. I mean, there are a lot of decorating shows out there – a lot – and it was a strategic move on our behalf. We wanted to align ourselves with a powerful partner that had visibility in the marketplace and that would get the appointments with the program buyers. In that respect, I think it has worked out very well.’


NATPE trend:

Gameshow revival

What’s the hot ticket at NATPE this year? Most bets heavily favor gameshows. Says market regular Rob Weller of Weller/Grossman Productions, ‘Gameshows have been dead for years, with the exception of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Now, because of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, gameshows have suddenly burst onto the scene, and people are going to be strongly considering them this NATPE.’

U.S. network ABC has enjoyed the runaway success of Millionaire, and is even said to be developing another quizshow, Mastermind. Not to be left out, the other networks are anxious to grab a piece of the quizshow pie, too. The following is a short list of the gamesters on the horizon.

NBC: In true revivalist fashion, nbc has resurrected 1950′s gameshow Twenty-One. Talkshow host Maury Povich has signed to ask the all-important questions on the show, which is produced by NBC Studios, in association with the Fred Silverman Co. and Gurin Co. The first four episodes will run throughout January, and the network plans to decide on the show’s future based on initial ratings.

CBS: Winning Lines is the latest vehicle for perennial TV personality Dick Clark (former host of $10,000 Pyramid). Produced by the same team that conceived Millionaire (Celador Productions and Stone Stanley Entertainment), Lines airs Saturdays at 8 p.m.

Fox: Greed – the most direct Millionaire clone – is also guided by Dick Clark, this time in the capacity of executive producer. Clark selected another gameshow veteran, Chuck Woolery, to host. Greed fronts Fox’s Friday night lineup, airing at 8 p.m.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.