TV distribution takes many forms
“You didn’t even mention Syndication!”
I never expected that feedback from my Fellowship Proposal when I asked Lawrence K. Grossman, former NBC News President, to recommend me to The Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Grossman’s colleague, and by then my partner, Paul Klein, former NBC Sr. VP of Entertainment and Research, gave my proposal a glowing recommendation. Thanks to him, I was making a name for myself with both trade and mainstream magazine placements. More important, I was meeting top level execs—the dinosaurs who’d started the TV business.
My request to Mr. Grossman came during the late 1990s and his response hit even Klein hard. In addition to cable and satellite, which Paul and I were focused on, there were seven broadcast networks. Each programmed their network’s national shows leaving many hours for each of the seven stations to program locally with local news, “off network” national broadcast syndication, independent syndication, or even infomercials. My pitch to Shorenstein was to chart those seven signals plus the cable signals—from A&E to Vice—and satellite signals collectively using Nielsen ratings to determine how long it took television’s audience to brand products, notions or candidates into each and every American head.
My point, learned from 15 years of buying and selling national TV, was that securing “Piece of Mind” in the 500 Channel Universe was readily reachable when ABC, CBS, NBC monopolized TV’s audience. Its stations were inflexibly contracted to run licensed network shows in fixed time periods. Shows that didn’t meet Nielsen ratings estimates were moved to other time periods, put on hiatus or cancelled and replaced. Network affiliates stations still had hours at their discretion to program locally and the owned and operated stations programmed local news in several daily dayparts. Yet syndicated shows could make a local station manager’s life easier.
Confided to me decades ago by one, “I don’t want to send a truck to Jersey if The Devils make the playoffs.” Hence, the station manager might admit that it would profit more by giving up morning, noon, early and late local news for more Drew Barrymore, Rachael Ray or any of the syndicated judge or talk shows. Some of the syndicated shows are bought for cash outright, whereas others are bartered, giving stations time to sell locally and producers to sell nationally. Those shows contract for different times in different U.S. TV markets. An hour show on WPIX (WB) at 7pm on Saturday in New York could run on WUXP in Nashville, (MY) at Midnight on Sunday. There’s no analogous cable syndication. Discovery, USA and Lifetime’s programming are all dedicated transmissions from one of the many cable programming services to its subscribing homes. (The broadcast channels have a lot closer to 100% US Household distribution than most cable programming services do.) But local markets sprouted new independent broadcast stations as the FCC allowed during the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s. As cable systems grew in number and their channel capacity increased, the cable companies carried more broadcast stations over their cable systems. The distribution of cable systems facilitated former independent stations to be networked by FOX, MY, ION and WB. They were enabled by cable. The by-product was a lunch with a top-level syndication guy. He said that his national spot sales TV team could now put advertisers in Cheers because cable opened up the four new national signals. The programming was identical. The station time periods and lineups made it a smart buy. Here was a chance to heavy-up on Cheers, a show every advertiser wanted more.
My first experience working with syndicated programming was at Whitehall’s Division of American Home Products. I was their Network TV Coordinator, determining whether Anacin, Dristan or Preparation H should go on Little House on The Prairie, BJ and The Bear, or The Rockford Files. We had two-thirds of our money on NBC because Nielsen reported that, even though they were the lowest-rated network, they drilled messages to everyone many times over the course of a month. We bought a few syndicated shows which, in 1979, were required to reach most of the top 10 markets and 65% of the total U.S.
Making it more difficult for producers, some of the markets didn’t have ABC, CBS and NBC. But we bought Mike Douglas, Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw every month. Had I sat with Mr. Grossman–we lived a few blocks away–I could have made a spreadsheet with my fingers. I’d line up the broadcast signals: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, ION, MY and WB horizontally. Then I’d make a row reflective of the 24 hours in a day vertically. Further, I’d add cable, A&E to Vice and, finally the satellite signals. NFLST, MLB…to adult. The only TV distribution where a syndicator could place their show whether Monday through Friday or weekend was on broadcast TV. MY and ION are the only two network affiliates that don’t program local news. They live for syndication and infomercials. FOX and WB affiliates still have full news teams for any local emergency, albeit with not as many news hours as ABC, CBS and NBC.
I sold nationally syndicated programs for TV Horizons, a small, independent company. After I got there in 1989, I hand crafted a promotion that won laughs but no bank: “Maury Povich Beats His Wife.” We represented his syndicated show, A Current Affair. It posted better demographics than his wife Connie Chung’s show, on Saturday night during primetime on CBS. TV Horizon’s heads, twin brothers, emerged a new market out of Grey Advertising with Sha Na Na. It ran for four seasons. The brothers later came up with original made-for-syndication movies. The first featured the Landers sisters. The production values were respectable and the rating were encouraging. I thought the films made us a takeover target; that King World, which sold Rachael Ray, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune would go into the made-for business by buying TVH. Instead, CBS bought them. TVH was such small potatoes that Mike, our boss, called TVH “last on the C List.” He ain’t never lied.
One day, my assistant ran out of his cubicle and burst our mellow. The rundown we gave our advertisers said that Family Feud, our most requested show, aired in a fine time period in Washington D.C. Suddenly, my assistant told us that Family Feud wasn’t running in D.C. at all. The station dropped it without telling us. My assistant found out while doing a routine traffic check, making sure the ads were locked and loaded. Only weeks earlier we’d finally gotten Family Feud back on in Philadelphia. Everyone high-fived my buddy for getting The Feud back on in Philadelphia, only to see it vanish in D.C. Said Mike, “Don’t tell them!”
That was new protocol for me. But after digesting it, I then heard from Grey Advertising. Inspector Gadget was running at 4:30 am in Minneapolis. Our list, hopefully innocently, showed it ran at 6:30 am. The crap at TVH continued. Our actual ratings were so far below our estimates that we asked Kenner and Hasbro to move their toy commercials from pre-Christmas to January. On my suggestion, we’d softened the blow by meshing nationally animated Police Academy with Ghostbuster and called it Police Busters. We also had a self-styled Super Friends deal with General Foods. I calculated that it would be four years until they were paid back. While dedicating myself to finding inventory to repay General Foods, Hasbro and Kenner, my phone rings. Hawaiian Punch had new money! Naturally, we sold Hawaiian Punch everything we had. Hasbro and Kenner, instead, got tons of spots on WPIX in New York during Kids, a thimble of local audience to make good a sea of national shortfall. New York, the country’s number one market, is 8.5% of the U.S., or not 91.5% of the country. The shows we gave them had 1.0% national ratings, or 0.85% nationally. We estimated 3.5%! Only (Alan) Thicke of the Night did worse.
Did you know him? At Ogilvy & Mather we bought the show for American Express Cards. Alan Thicke’s show was syndicated by Metromedia, a big station owner. It tried to introduce this Canadian star to American audiences. I say tried because Thicke of the Night’s ratings were a disaster; so low that I was the only one in Primetime Sales at ABC’s primetime premier party who recognized him. With God as my witness, I gave him shit. I said that he still owed my American Express a lot of time and I was going to introduce him to Amex Do You Know Me’s campaign. He was good natured, as one would expect from the guy who wrote the theme songs to Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life and sired Robin Thicke. Thicke of the Night aired on New York’s FOX affiliate after the 10 pm news, and I always wondered if it was a coincidence that Metromedia’s sales rep was called “Foxy.”