With a lineup that includes perennial performers, classic sitcoms and a few fresh shows generating early buzz, syndication programmers feel confident about the coming upfront.
Syndicators believe they're justified in that optimism because the current programming strength is paired with new leadership at the Syndicated Network Television Association, a mounting perception that the quality of syndicated fare is improving, and ratings growth in the all-important 18-49 demographic.
But media buyers-while agreeing that syndication is positioned well-urge programmers not to become giddy with success. After all, syndication has at times been a default after broadcast to meet bottom-line ad budget goals. Changing that perception may take some time.
That's why most buyers and programming analysts are predicting a rise in the low single-digits both in cost per thousand and total upfront take for syndication this year. Most buyers expect increases will be 5% or less. A year ago in the upfront, syndication scored a 12% increase to $2.25 billion, according to Advertising Age figures.
Reasons for an anticipated 2004 increase include the fact that several syndication programmers are sold out for the second quarter, which has brought CPM increases.
Media buyers are ready for the syndicated pitch. "I think [syndication is] really going to get their opportunity in this marketplace to tee up and have their chance." says Bill McOwen, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Havas' MPG USA, New York.
a planned component
A key to closing the gap with broadcast is to take a long-term view, he says. "What syndication has the opportunity to do, if they work this market correctly with other dayparts and properties, [syndication] becomes a planned component of a media proposal, not just a default mechanism. ... We need to be more receptive to properties [other than network broadcast], which could ease the type of escalating costs we see and which would probably be as viable in attaining our marketing goals," Mr. McOwen says.
Syndicated fare is getting a long look from marketers. "We believe that syndication is in a better position to be considered as a viable alternative to network this year. However, we continue to seek out options that deliver more upscale and light TV viewers first," says Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media.
The SNTA has been successful over the last few years in raising awareness of the value of syndicated shows in light of ratings declines on broadcast, says Harry Keeshan, exec VP-national broadcast at Omnicom Group's PHD U.S. "But if the price is too high, it won't fly," he says. "The prices were so astronomically high last year, and the value of television is being questioned."
Syndication has added 20,000 gross rating points in the 18-49 demo over the last two years, says SNTA President Mitch Burg. That represents half of what broadcasters have lost in that demo in that time frame, he says.
Syndicators have plenty to shop heading into the upfront, Mr. Burg says. Bolstering their confidence are stalwarts like "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Dr. Phil," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"-all syndicated by Viacom's King World Productions-and new entrants like "The Insider" (Viacom's Paramount Advertiser Services), "The Jane Pauley Show" (General Electric Co.'s NBC Enterprises), "The Larry Elder Show" (Time Warner's Telepictures) and "The Tony Danza Show" (Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Television Advertising Sales). Also in the wings are offnetwork newcomers "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (King World), "Fear Factor" (NBC Enterprises) and "Malcolm in the Middle" (News Corp.'s Twentieth Television).
"With cable getting so much buzz and stealing viewers from stations and broadcast, I think that took [syndication] by surprise," says Deana Myers, senior analyst with Kagan Research, "and they realized they have to come up with more original, unique products, and they have succeeded to some degree."
REACHING OUT TO CUSTOMERS
The strength of syndication is based on some heavy lifting, too, says Marc Hirsch, president of Paramount Advertiser Services. "We've spent the last number of years trying to strengthen syndication, and have a voice and reach out to our customers-the buyers, planners and agencies-and give them our message, which is that there is a lot of terrific programming in syndication," he says.
Syndication also has an ace up its sleeve since it owns a passel of popular classic sitcoms. Given the challenges in developing a hit situation comedy on network TV these days, syndicators with such properties should benefit from the scarcity, Mr. Burg says.
"This year going forward there isn't really a classic comedy on broadcast," says MPG's Mr. McOwen. "If you want that classic sitcom, your safe bet is to look at syndication."
Not only can viewers turn to syndication for sitcoms like "Everybody Loves Raymond" (King World), "Friends" (Time Warner's Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution) and "Seinfeld" (Sony Pictures Television), they will be able to find this content for a long time to come, says Steve Hirsch, president of King World Media Sales, referring to those three shows as the pantheon of offnetwork products.
Newcomers like "The Insider," a spinoff of the popular segment on "Entertainment Tonight," are appealing, says Mr. Keeshan.
In many markets, "The Insider" will be presented in tandem with "ET," offering a seamless hour of entertainment-focused information, which makes for a strong sell, says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming for Katz Television Group.
While advertisers in the traditional syndicated categories of automotive, pharmaceuticals and financial services will remain players this year, advertisers in general want to move beyond 30-second spots and into so-called "organic integration." Paramount is looking at ways to provide product placement opportunities for advertisers, Mr. Hirsch says.
Package-goods, retail and telecom will also be strong categories in syndication, as usual.