Syndication Special Report: 'Whacked Out Sports' Boys Scoring with Young Males

Q&A: Ultimate Fighting, Crashes, Silly Animals give Trifecta leg up with Guys

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When Trifecta Entertainment & Media opened its doors a year ago, the syndication world didn't know exactly what to make of it. It wasn't that observers doubted the bona fides of Trifecta's four founding partners, who birthed their syndication company after leaving MGM TV Entertainment. Rather, they questioned whether a new, small entity could achieve quick traction in what's perceived by most to be a changing, challenging marketplace.

Trifecta's first year seems to have quieted the doubters. In addition to returnees like "Whacked Out Sports" (which runs after NBC's Sunday-night football game in many markets) and "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures," the company is set to debut a Hanna companion piece ("Jack Hanna's Into the Wild"), Ultimate Fighting Championship's first syndicated offering ("UFC Wired") and celeb-centric courtroom strip "Jury Duty." Correspondent Larry Dobrow talked to Trifecta partner and CEO Hank Cohen and partner Michael Daraio about their approach and their belief that, with the right mix of programming and ambition, smaller players can thrive in today's syndication market.

How does a smaller company like yours succeed in this kind of environment?

Michael Daraio: I'm not fond of the term "boutique." It kind of hearkens to an image of small and specialized. Not that we want to be a behemoth or anything, though. Who knows what we or anybody else will be tomorrow?

Hank Cohen: In a way, redefining ourselves as small-business owners and independent helped. MGM was great to us. They got us started by doing a one-year deal with us to look after a few of their shows. Having that credibility really helped.

Mr. Daraio: We're throwing out a mix that's different from everybody else. Most of the players are affiliated with a studio. Then you have Sony, which is a studio without stations. We're either the first of a new breed or last of a dying one.

Mr. Cohen: What still gets overlooked is that it all starts with the content. In our first year, we were associated with the Jack Hanna name, and now we've got UFC. When advertisers see you're with an established, successful brand, a lot of the challenges [of being new] fall away.

Are pundits overplaying the syndication-is-struggling story line?

Mr. Cohen: Syndication as a whole was and is very healthy. There is always going to be room for large studio players who have the access to station groups and who have the ears of advertisers. But there are so many choices for independent people on projects that may have been overlooked by the big guys or maybe, for whatever reason, judged not worth their while.

My point is we're not out to compete with the studios. They're going to do what they're going to do. The sweet spot for us is finding those properties, niche ones and bigger ones, that may not be on their radar.

Mr. Daraio: Everyone always bemoans the state of syndication, which I don't get. It dominates numerous dayparts: daytime, weekends, even late-night. Lots of shows in syndication do better ratings than network, and you can buy them five days a week. Frankly, agencies should be participating to a greater extent than they are right now.

Why aren't they, then?

Mr. Daraio: Good question. I guess it's easier to plan cable or network. Maybe it's a problem with the nuts and bolts of the behind-the-scenes operations, as opposed to the realities of the ratings and properties of the [syndicated] shows themselves. Is our trade organization as good as [the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau]? No. All that said, lots of money is being spent in syndication by a lot of advertisers.

In a big-picture sense, the two issues on the plate for most syndicators are softer ratings and consolidation. How do you respond to those trends?

Mr. Cohen: I don't know that you can respond to them. There are ebbs and flows and cycles to all businesses. Everyone adjusts to the reality of marketplace. Maybe the lower numbers will make people more cognizant of programming costs. You always tried to do things cost-effectively, but now the margins are a little tighter.

How do you keep syndication attractive to advertisers at a time when ratings are a little soft and you're facing competition from digital and other opportunities?

Mr. Daraio: Are the ratings really soft? Let me re-ask that question: Is the erosion that syndication is facing any worse than what we've seen across the cable and network landscape? Fragmentation is natural. Go into any store: There used to be two brands of soap, now there are 50. Anytime ratings go backwards, it's not a good thing. It's also not the end of the world.

Mr. Cohen: TV is still delivering the largest amount of viewers. At the same time, nobody should have his head in the sand. Just because you're pursuing electronic and internet things doesn't mean you get out of TV. The opportunities can and should be complementary.

Mr. Daraio: It's very simple. Advertisers will chase eyeballs. Wherever there are eyeballs or the possibility there will be eyeballs in the future, that's where they'll be. What the people who are saying these things about syndication should ask is "How long will the viewing public's fascination with amateur videos keep going?" At some point, production values will take precedence. There's a reason people watch TV: It's bigger and better looking, and advertisers want to be a part of that that environment.

Is the whole definition of syndication changing?

Mr. Cohen: I think it's opening up a little bit. If you can find a show that can work across platforms, that can be compatible in different ways, maybe you're a little ahead of the game. But internet and mobile and everything else, they're still just delivery devices. Strong content is strong content no matter where it exists.

Mr. Daraio: "Jury Duty" is a good example. It's a variation on a theme. Successful shows in syndication, they don't shake up a genre-they just tweak it. It's hosted by Bruce Cutler, who's one of those quote-unquote "attorneys to the stars." We'll have a celebrity jury of three who will decide a case. If they're not unanimous, Cutler will decide it. Viewers can text in and have their vote heard.

Do some of these new digital ventures contribute to audience fragmentation, or are they a response to it?

Mr. Cohen: To be honest, I don't know. There's an opportunity for viewers to watch what they want to watch on a variety of platforms. Anybody who claims to know why the audience has fragmented like it has is only speculating. Let's not panic here.

Will these digital options ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing for TV syndication?

Mr. Cohen: A good thing, potentially a great thing. As soon as people discover the real trick, which is making each [non-TV] component a necessary part of the program, they can do some cool new stuff.

Mr. Daraio: It's the question everybody wants the answer to. More options and outlets can be more problematic, but they can also give access to smaller players that can't get in the door in a more traditional way. A smaller producer can go on digital tiers. The problem is who's going to be watching them? You can have the greatest idea in world, but if three people watch it, that's not so good.

For the syndication market, what are we going to see in 2007?

Mr. Cohen: Hopefully some hit shows, right? (Laughs.) The companies that grow are going to be the ones that do it in a smart and timely manner.

Mr. Daraio: It'll be a better market than you saw in the last upfront. Probably not as many new shows-sometimes, that's a good thing. When there are too many shows, it diffuses ratings and dollars. We're a supply-and-demand business. When supply outstrips demand, that's not good for anybody.
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