Richard Levine
Richard Levine

Fellowship Title:

Syndicated Television: The Other Side of the Wasteland

Richard Levine
February 17, 1978

Fellowship Year

Like a Raggedy Ann with glitter in her hair, the workaday world of television syndication has a bright new look. Until recently the business of distributing television programs on a station by station basis has been the poor country cousin of network television, accepting its cast off programs when they were threadbare from use and selling them to individual stations to run during the fringe time periods when the networks switch off their cables. If television was a vast wasteland, four-thirty in the afternoon was its geographical epicenter, a cultural time capsule where religious revivals rubbed shoulders with women’s roller derby, Grade B movies had their last picture showing and everybody loved Lucy for ever and ever.

Because individual stations do not have the economic clout of the three networks, original (“first-run”) syndicated programming tends to be directed at the older and rural audiences that the network demographic experts disdain (Heehaw and The Lawrence Welk Show are the two top-rated syndicated programs) or the younger audience that is considered too seasonal (“children,” one network executive told me recently, “are a fourth quarter business”). They also tend to be cheap, with the two most successful genres being game shows, which can be turned out five a day on a relatively low budget, and animal shows, where the talent is about as good and the residuals much lower.

The fortunes of syndicated television began to change in the early ’70s, when talk shows hosts like Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore became staples of late-afternoon programming (Douglas and Griffin, both network castoffs, are now among television’s highest paid performers.) Then a few years ago, Space 1999 and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, both British imports rejected by the networks, began to find a healthy following in syndication. And then came another network reject, a slack-jawed, pigtailed waif named Mary Hartmann, who promptly became the surprise hit of the television season on channels one needed a safecracker’s touch to tune in. Just a few weeks ago Norman Lear introduced America 2Night, a syndicated talk show spoof already sold in over 40 television markets, including all of the top ten. And a group called Operation Primetime has produced a film version of John Jakes’ historical novel, The Bastard, designed to compete with the networks’ evening schedules. The group, a loose coalition of nearly 100 TV stations under the aegis of Universal Television, is in effect a one-shot television network.

But for all of its recent success, syndicated television is not likely to replace network television in the near future for good economic reasons. A network need only throw an electronic switch and nearly all of its 200-affiliate stations will carry its schedule. (Half that number would constitute a runaway hit in syndication.) In return for the first two showings, it can afford to pay a producer like Norman Lear the $100-150,000 it costs him to make a single episode for a half-hour sitcom. The producer, in turn, makes all of his profit (and often makes up a considerable deficit) when the series finishes its network run and can be sold in syndication.

First-run syndication is another matter. The show must be sold to each station individually and at rates that fluctuate wildly according to the size of each television market. Since the networks provide most of the programming for their affiliates, the main customers for syndicated shows are independent stations, many of them marginal UHF stations in outlying areas. Nor does a syndicator have the enormous publicity machinery available to the networks to promote a new show. And to add insult to injury, he must make dozens of prints of each episode and distribute-or “bicycle” -them to each station by non-electronic means.

Syndicators and station programmers come together at the annual National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention. Here syndicators rent hotel suites where they display their wares on videocassette records. The price of the merchandise is negotiable.

This year’s NATPE convention was held at the Hotel Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles early last March. Most of the hundreds of TV programs available for viewing were old series that had finished their network runs and so were ready for syndication- so-called “off-network” shows. Since these series were usually “stripped” in syndication- shown five days a week like a soap opera-they ought to have been on the networks long enough to accumulate a minimum of 75-80 “negatives” (three years at the current rate of production). That way a station that buys a specified number of runs of the show in a given time period (say 10 runs in five years) would not have to repeat the whole series more than two or three times a year.

Generally, a show that does well in its network run will do well in syndication, but this is not always true. The classic exception was Mission Impossible, which had high ratings during the six years it played on the network and bombed in syndication. “It’s a gimmick show,” said Harvey Seslowsky, a syndication advisor to over 60 TV stations, “and gimmick shows grow stale. Besides, it had the bad luck of coming off the network around the time of Watergate, when the fantasy had gone out of the spy business.” Similarly, Combat, a popular war series on NBC, went into local markets at the height of anti-Vietnam sentiment. The opposite also occurs frequently. Star Trek, which had barely adequate ratings during its three-year network run, has been a syndication bonanza. Shown in 150 markets, it has developed a cult following of devoted “Trekkies” and will soon become, as they say, a major motion picture.

Since the networks cancel successful shows as soon as their ratings begin to slip, producers have begun to protect their investments by syndicating TV series that are still on the networks, changing only the title. Thus, Ironsides became The Raymond Burr Show when it went into syndication, Bonanza became Ponderosa and Marcus Welby became Robert Young, Family Doctor. Since a series with a changed title loses much of the audience familiarity it has built up over the years, this recent innovation is not one that thrills station programmers, and the show reverts back to the more familiar title as soon as its network run is over.

Still another way for a syndicator to keep prices up is the sale of “futures,” TV series that are put in syndication at the height of their popularity with a release date long in advance. At this year’s NATPE convention Happy Days was selling for record-high prices ($35,000 per episode in major markets like L.A. and New York), even though it could not be shown in syndication before 1980. (Happy Days is a dream syndication show. It appeals to kids, who watch TV in heavier numbers than their parents during the late afternoon and will watch repeats more readily. And it has nostalgia built into its very premise and thus will never appear dated, as will many of the Norman Lear shows with their topical references.)

This was another practice that annoyed buyers at this year’s NATPE convention. “Deciding whether the public will still be interested in The Six Million Dollar Man in 1980, one station manager told me, “isn’t programming so much as crystal ball gazing.” But the practice is gaining acceptance because there is such a shortage of off-network shows. Like the major film studios, television companies were simply turning out less product, and for the same overriding reason-money. If the viewer could expect 52 new episodes of his favorite series in the early days of television, then 39 (with 13 repeats), now he is lucky to get 22 new episodes. Not only does it take longer for a producer to collect enough negatives to go into syndication under the best of circumstances, but the networks, with their greater reliance on ever more sophisticated research, were canceling shows at the drop of a Nielsen point. The result was a classic demand and supply situation: higher and higher prices for a diminishing number of series.

The fact that all the station executives on hand knew that the competition in their market was looking at the same shows added a certain quickness to their march through the endlessly circular corridors of the Bonaventure-a hotel that resembles nothing so much as a final exam for a class of laboratory rats. Fortunately, each executive had a somewhat different shopping list.

Harvey Seslowsky was recommending Happy Days to his clients, at whatever price. “Sitcoms generally do better in syndication than hour-long action shows,” he told me. “In the fringe time periods when most syndicated shows are scheduled, people have shorter attention spans than they do later in the evening.” Because most of Seslowsky’s stations are network affiliates, he is always on the lookout for prime time access shows. Access shows are designed to fill the needs of local affiliates during the 7-8 p.m. periods when the networks are forbidden to program and affiliates in the top 50 markets are prohibited from using off-network series. When the F.C.C. established the “prime time access rule” in 1971, it had intended to open the time period up to all manner of marvelous locally- produced, public service programming-a nice but expensive idea for the cost-cutting tastes of station managers. What it got instead was the present profusion of game and animal shows that qualified as first-run (if hardly first-rate) syndicated programming. Half the exhibitors at the convention were pitching prime-time access shows. This year’s new wrinkle in the 100% polyester look of game shows seemed to be that several new ones on the market gently spoofed the genre.

David Baltimore, who owns WBRE-TV, the NBC affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was interested in one such show. The $1.98 Beauty Contest proved to be a parody of beauty contests nearly identical in format to The Gong Show, a spoof of talent shows that was made, not coincidentally, by the same producer, Chuck Barris. “Barris is the only producer who knows how to skew to 18-49,’9 the saleswoman said before slipping in the videocassette. “Women at home 18-34 will be able to identify with our contestants because they can perform and model suits just as well.” She was right there. The first contestant in the pilot wanted to be an actress, but if all else failed, as it no doubt would, said she’d settle for dental hygiene. The second and third were a pair of six-foot-plus twins who hoped to attend college on volleyball scholarships. The host, Rip Taylor, squirted seltzer and threw confetti at contestants and panelists alike.

“It’s just awful enough to do well,” Baltimore said when it was over.

“Chuck says it’ll do a 40 share,” the saleswoman said brightly. “Want to buy it?”

“For $1.98,” Baltimore said, hedging his bets for the moment.

He saw several other game shows in different suites, none much better, and then walked in to see the distributor selling Match Game. It was the Wilkes-Barre CBS affiliate’s best show in access time period. “I don’t want to do anything to them I wouldn’t want them to do to me,” David told the salesman. “But if they don’t renew, you know where to come.”

Later, he watched the pilot for Hee Haw Honeys-a spin-off of the country-and-western show Hee Haw during which guest star Billy Carter read his jokes syllable by painful syllable from the TelePrompTer. Baltimore thought the program might work if he paired it with Hee Haw, which was one of the top-rated shows on WBRE, but he also knew that the company would want to trade him Hee Haw Honeys in return for a stipulated amount of advertising time-a common arrangement known as barter syndication-and he was reluctant to give up any revenue from commercials during the only part of the day he owned outright. (In return for carrying NBC’s schedule, the network pays Baltimore a small percentage of his market’s share of its advertising revenue, which amounts to about $250 per prime-time hour in his case, and gives him two or three 30-second “adjacencies” each hour to sell on his own. By contrast, Baltimore receives all the advertising revenue from his syndicated shows.)

“Will you take straight cash instead of time?” he asked the salesman.

“Can’t do,” the salesman said. “You know we just barter.”

“What terms?”

“Same as Hee Haw. Four minutes for you, two for us.”

“Will you take five and one?”

“Can’t do either.”

Besides access shows, the only other kind of programming that really interested Baltimore was feature films, which he needed for his Sunday afternoon movie. The major studios sell packages of films to TV stations after their theatrical and network showings, under the same terms as any other syndicated show, so many runs of each film over so many years. With some misgiving, Baltimore headed for the Paramount suite, which had a new film package that he realized would probably be as expensive per title as Happy Days, another Paramount property.

Scanning the list of films in the new package in the company’s brochure, Baltimore noticed right away that it included a number of older films mixed in with a few recent hits-and failed to mention that the hits could not be shown for several years.

“When will Duddy Kravitz be available?” Baltimore asked Lou Israel, the veteran salesman who headed Paramount’s distribution department.

“Not until 1981,” Israel admitted.

“Dreyfuss is hot now,” Baltimore said. “Who knows where he’ll be in 1981.”

“Let’s cut the bullshit,” Israel said. “We both know all the moves-I knew you when your hair was black. We have a $2500 price tag per film in your market. Five runs in five years.”

Baltimore looked at him with mock incredulity. “You know our problems with cable competition,” he said. “We’re the 42nd market doing the business of the 70th with the profit of the 90th. You can’t treat us like Harrisburg or Syracuse.”

“I realize it’s a soft market,” Israel said. “So we’ll take a little less than $2500.”

“I wouldn’t give you $1000 a film,” Baltimore said.

“Bludhorn says sugar is down, so we can’t give away movies,” Israel countered, referring to Charles Bludhorn, the chairman of Gulf and Western, Paramount’s parent company. “C’mon, spend some money, David. You must still have your first nickel.”

“What else can you do for us?” Baltimore asked.” Happy Days?”

“I’m not ready to talk about Happy Days,” Israel said. “Let’s do some business with the films first.”

The negotiations went downhill from there. It had been a long and not very rewarding day for Baltimore, and he was beginning to feel even more contentious than usual.

“Brown,” he said, getting up to leave.

“What, brown?” Israel said.

“My hair used to be brown.”

©1978 Richard M. Levine

Richard Levine is spending his fellowship year writing about “The Making of the Television Season.”