How John Tesh Is Shaking Up TV Syndication

Illustration by: R. Kikuo Johnson

The former "Entertainment Tonight" host -- whose company is producing and self-distributing a new daily talk show -- is keeping his budgets low and targeting cities where his radio show is popular as he looks to compete with higher-profile players.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When John Tesh walked away from Entertainment Tonight in 1996, he disappeared from the national TV stage. But Tesh never quit working. He has performed 30 or more concerts a year and since 2003 has hosted (with his wife, actress Connie Sellecca, and stepson, Gib Gerard) a syndicated radio show on about 800 stations billed as Intelligence for Your Life.

Now, Tesh, 61, is returning to TV with a daily syndicated talk show, also called Intelligence for Your Life, and a business plan designed to tweak the usual syndication model. In an era when the launch of a star-driven talk show like Katie, The Ellen DeGeneres Show or Steve Harvey can cost $100 million, Tesh will roll out his show this fall with a bankroll of less than $5 million to get him through the first year. His L.A.-based TeshMedia is producing and self-distributing, targeting cities where his Christian-themed radio show is popular. "We really are guerrilla television," he says.

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Intelligence is part of a small group of syndicated shows -- including RightThisMinute, America Now and The Better Show -- that flies under the radar but competes with higher-profile players by going cheap.

Susana Schuler, vp news and content for station group Raycom Media, a partner in Right This Minute and America Now, says they realized they wanted to control their own destiny. "We are unhappy as a collective group," says Schuler, adding: "We want to improve audience engagement, our product and, frankly, to control the cost and have more say in the content."

Greg Conklin, corporate programming director for the Gray Television Group, which will air Intelligence in five markets this fall, says they also have more time to fill on digital channels. "We have a large amount of dot two and dot three stations in our markets that I have to program," he says. "We could double- or even triple-run Judge Judy or People's Court but you know what? There's plenty of really good product out there I'd rather see."

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For example, this fall Gray will air Intelligence in Omaha, Neb., following the morning news. "Most of our stations are No. 1 in news," says Conklin. "I see this as a companion to the news. The snippets of information John and Connie will give us we can use in our newscast, and that also promote the show that follows."

To sell Intelligence, Tesh recruited former Paramount TV executive Mark Dvornik, who says it will debut this fall even if he can't sign up affiliates in the biggest markets. Dvornik expects to be in 65 percent to 75 percent of U.S. TV homes -- including those in Detroit, New Orleans and San Francisco -- but probably not in New York or L.A. at launch. The show also will air in 110 smaller markets on The CW.

A model for Tesh is The Better Show, owned by Meredith Corp. Now in its eighth season, the info-talk show draws on Meredith's magazines for content, including Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle. Better Show is up 22 percent in national syndicated ratings this season and airs in New York, L.A. and 75 percent of U.S. TV homes.

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Another model is RightThisMinute, which was launched in 2011 by local TV station groups (Cox Media, Raycom and E.W. Scripps). At the start of 2013 the syndicated show was available in about one-third of U.S. TV homes. To help extend its reach, the TV groups behind the show made a deal with MGM TV to take over national syndication sales. By the end of 2013, the show was in 65 percent of TV homes daily and reached another 20 percent as a weekend show.

Phil Alvidrez, executive producer of RightThisMinute, says MGM leveraged the success they were already having. "They said this isn't an idea for a show," says Alvidrez. "This is a show with a track record."

An impressive one in some markets. In Detroit at 12:30 p.m., for instance, it regularly out-rates Ellen, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Steve Harvey and Katie Couric. In Charlotte it attracts more 25-to 54-year-old women than Queen Latifah or Bethenny. In Nashville it beats Wendy Williams, Steve Wilkos and People's Court.

"These are broadcasters making a show for other broadcasters," says John Bryan, president of domestic TV distribution for MGM, "so they give them a lot of ancillary things to do with it, like a video of the day to run on their local news."

"In a real sense, it's the next generation of TV shows," says Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming for Katz Media. "It's taking advantage of where the audience is in terms of video content."

There is no guarantee, of course. America Now, created in 2010, offering "news you can really use," reached 75 percent of TV homes but still announced in February this will be the final season. According to Schuler, "It's an issue of clearances, better stations, better time periods. It just became a business decision."

Raycom Media, which owns or controls 53 TV stations, doesn't see the demise of America Now as evidence the self-syndication effort doesn't work. This fall Raycom, with producing partner Bellum Entertainment, is launching two new daliy half-hours, Fit It & Finish It and Flip My Food, on their stations and in a handful of other markets.

"In the future, we have to really respond to an audience that wants local but expects content as good as what they see on broadcast," says Schuler. "If we can find the right business model and the right partnership to create content that answers that need, that's a win for us, a win for the producing company and a win for the audience."