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It’s syndicated television’s version of a test marriage, and there is no shortage of contenders willing to say “I do.” But the Fox Television Stations group is highly selective when choosing a show for the long haul.
Since 2008, Fox has been the only station group with outlets in the biggest U.S. TV markets to give wannabe first-run syndicated talk, lifestyle and entertainment shows a test run in their on-air “inclubator” before making a commitment for one to three years.
And this summer Fox is doing it twice for the first time, with both The Real and Kris premiering Monday, July 15, in select markets.
The Real, a daily talk show similar to The View and The Talk but with younger and more racially diverse talent, airs for four weeks in seven cities. The show is hosted by Tamera Mowry-Housley, Tamar Braxton, Loni Love, Adrienne Bailon and Jeannie Mai. It is being executive produced by Jersey Shore creator SallyAnn Salsano.
Kris, a new talk show starring Kardashian “momager” Kris Jenner, gets a six-week test run in five markets. According to advance promos, it will feature celebrity guests as well as conversations about fashion, beauty and lifestyle topics.
Kris will be produced by 20th Television, a sister company to the Fox stations under the 21st Century Fox umbrella (formerly News Corp.). The executive producer is Robert Lifton, whose credits include Access Hollywood and ESPN SportsCenter.
Not all of the shows that are tested by Fox are required to provide corporate synergy. The Real, for instance, is produced by Telepictures, part of Warner Bros. Television (a division of Time Warner).
What matters to the Fox stations is whether or not it is a show audiences respond to at a level that would compel Fox to acquire that program for all of their stations across the country.
“Our concern is to get a real look at a show over a real amount of time to get a feel for whether its series-worthy or not,” says Frank Cicha, senior vp programming at Fox Television Stations, adding: “We try to create a reasonable environment for success, but in the end the show’s work or they don’t work on their own merit.”
The poster child for this concept remains The Wendy Williams Show, the first and so far most successful program to come out of this testing process. It is produced and distributed by Debmar-Mercury, part of Lionsgate.
In her summer 2008 test, Wendy Williams, then a radio personality in several markets, showed she could attract a diverse audience when her show found immediate acceptance in New York City and Philadelphia (where she was also on the radio), and showed promise in Dallas.
That gave Debmar-Mercury the momentum to roll it out nationally the following fall. The Fox stations in the biggest cities provided an anchor, and the test success provided stations in other cities a level of comfort before they licensed it as well. Wendy enters its fifth season this fall and is already renewed through at least 2017.
“Fox is smart because they are doing the tests,” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “Therefore they have shows that have a higher chance to work and be effective on their stations.”
Other successes have included Dish Nation, TMZ Live and last summer’s six-week test of Bethenny, starring Bethenny Frankel, another Telepictures show which gets a national rollout beginning this fall.
However, not all succeed, as was the case with shows that were tested at various times starring Fran Drescher, Father Albert, Craig Kilborn and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (now on Fox News).
“You take a swing, and if it doesn’t work you move on,” says Cicha. “You don’t have to live with it for a year and lose $20 million or $30 million.”
Cicha credits the idea for testing to Jack Abernethy, CEO of Fox Television Stations, who wondered why there were only three or four new shows launched in syndication each fall. “He said, ‘I don’t get this,’” recalls Cicha. “‘This is an old model.’ So that was what started it.”
“Jack was the one who had the smarts and the balls to try something different,” says Marcus. “He opened up a new business opportunity.”
Cicha says they felt making multiyear commitments to shows without testing “was killing this business. There weren’t enough at-bats and too many projects that didn’t have merit were getting on the air.”
So Fox went to what Cicha calls “the simplest idea: The more at-bats you have the more chances you have to have a hit.”
These days Fox has a steady stream of requests from syndicators who want to have a show they are backing get a test run. However, Fox has been very selective. A show has to make sense for their stations and Fox executives must believe it has a real chance for success.
Why does Fox test, while others don’t? Partially, it’s a matter of available “shelf space.” Fox has duopoly’s (more than one station) in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, which provides a lot of time slots to try things. That is in contrast to station groups with a single station in each market, which are already locked into long-term commitments to shows — leaving little or no room for new contenders.
Fox purposely puts the test shows in time slots behind established shows that feed them an audience every day. Then they wait to see if it will hold or build on that audience.
Cicha also likes the idea that these tests provide Fox with fresh content at a time many competitors are showing reruns of established shows.
Fox mixes and matches the stations and time periods to expose a show in big markets, urban areas and middle America.
Kris will air (with time periods in parentheses) on Fox 5 in New York City (11 a.m.), Fox 11 in Los Angeles (3 p.m.), Fox 9 in Minneapolis (noon), Fox 19 in Phoenix (11 a.m.) and Fox 4 in Dallas (3 p.m.).
The Real will be seen on Fox 5 in New York City (noon); Fox 11 in Los Angeles (1 p.m.); Fox 5 in Washington, D.C. (11 a.m.); Fox 29 in Philadelphia (11 a.m.); Fox 10 in Phoenix (1 p.m.); Fox 26 in Houston (1 p.m.) and Fox 13 in Tampa (1 p.m.).
Most tests go on as scheduled but some – like Father Albert – are pulled early. “We’ve known in a week when a show was going to fail,” says Cicha. “There’s usually not a lot of gray area. You know it really quickly.”
Still, Fox never announces its decision to pick the show up or pass on it until the test is over.
“I don’t think there’s been a test that succeeded necessarily because of the time period or the promotion that went into it,” says Cicha. “If it succeeded, it was because there was enough in the show, and then it got the ratings. When they failed, they were just ideas that weren’t going to work.”
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