Surprisingly Well-Positioned to Serve Needs of the Right-Now Consumer

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- “Syndication,” as far as the big TV networks are concerned, has traditionally meant distributing reruns of successful shows, four or five years down the road, to local stations. But the TV business is nontraditional now, and the very meaning of syndication is changing.

NBC’s “The Office” (starring Steve Carell, above) is benefiting from the new syndication; episodes are available the next day on iTunes.
Hours, not years
The syndication concept is spilling into such new-media platforms as broadband, video-on-demand, iTunes and mobile video. No longer does a show have to rack up 100 episodes before plans are made to take it off-network. There’s still a time delay in the new syndication, but it can be hours instead of years, as when an episode runs on the network and is available later that same day for download on an iPod.

Advertisers and local TV stations may fret that this new form of syndication could diminish the allure of programs when they eventually take the conventional path off-network. But advocates of moving content quickly to new platforms point out that such tactics can expand the fan base and keep viewers interested in a show, making the program more appealing when it moves to local stations years later.

Distribution via new-media platforms can co-exist with traditional syndication by driving popularity for the shows, affirms Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, the syndication arm of NBC Universal.

The new syndication at this early stage is more about building an audience than drawing advertisers since few of the new platforms accept much advertising.

Hit shows benefiting
NBC’s “The Office” is benefiting from the new syndication; episodes are available the next day on iTunes. CBS’ “Survivor” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” can be seen on Google Video and Comcast Corp.’s VOD service immediately after broadcasting ends on the West Coast.

While these early new-media forays have yet to have a tangible effect on traditional syndication, early evidence indicates the rebroadcasts grow rather than splinter audiences. Take the case of “The Office” on iPod.

Since shifting to Thursday nights on Jan. 5, the show has averaged a 4.7 rating/11 share in adults 18-49, up 27% over earlier this season and an 88% rise over last season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The new time slot has played a role in the ratings burst, but “The Office” has been rising on iTunes, too. It’s been among the top 10 most-downloaded videos since it went live in December, according to NBC Universal. Frederick Huntsberry, president of NBC Universal Television Distribution, posits that iTunes is bringing new viewers.

Reaching traditional syndication
By boosting the show’s audience and ratings, the new platform could even help “The Office” survive long enough to reach traditional syndication, Mr. Huntsberry says. “The Office,” critically acclaimed but initially ratings-challenged, could use the increased interest via iTunes to help reach the 100-episode threshold for living on in syndication.

ABC has also seen ratings increases for “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” since their iTunes debut last October. But serialized shows often struggle in traditional syndication. They should look for opportunities to be syndicated now in these new media, says Scott Haugenes, senior VP-group director for national broadcast at Initiative, New York.

A crucial question remains about at what point audience-building rebroadcast can become damaging overexposure. The goal is to strike a proper balance between maximizing profit now and maintaining interest in a show down the road -- the new syndication benefiting the old syndication.

Careful about partners
“What we have done now to reduce the risk is be very careful about who our partners are [for new platforms],” says Albert Cheng, exec VP-digital media for the Disney ABC Television Group. “We don’t want to make our content too ubiquitous.”

There’s evidence that additional exposure can help drive a show that’s already in traditional syndication. The immense popularity of shows like “Seinfeld” and “CSI” on DVD apparently hasn’t hindered their syndication runs. The new syndication affects marketers on at least two fronts. Advertisers need to be convinced that programs will still be worth backing when they hit traditional syndication. But there’s also the challenge of how to involve marketers in the new syndication.

“We want to be in business with those guys who are looking to find different ways to do business,” says Initiative’s Mr. Haugenes. “If you have more content out there, that should help marketers. If it’s the right show, absolutely you want to be associated with it in all formats.”

Growing podcast audience
Not all new ventures have room for ads, though. For instance, iTunes doesn’t offer network shows with ads. However, experts predict that will change. A study released earlier this month from eMarketer found the audience for podcasts will reach 25 million in 2008 and 50 million by 2010. With that growth will come ad dollars -- $300 million by 2010, says Mike Chapman, editorial director at eMarketer. He believes most of that money will flow into network content.

But with the seemingly never-ending new venues for reruns, it may be hard to convince advertisers there’s still a role for traditional syndication.

Joel Berman, president of CBS Paramount Worldwide Television Distribution, puts his faith in the content: “Good content, if offered in a variety of ways, will find its audience. ... It is the network or broadcasters or syndication network that creates the initial platform to expose people to it.”

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