TV Market Turns to Digital, Partnerships and Trial Runs

Courtesy of CBS
MC Serch

Execs at the 2014 NATPE market and conference agree that the launchpad for new shows is evolving: "It’s really just about trying to cut the risk as much as possible.”

Lionsgate’s head of worldwide television Jim Packer brought his sales team to NATPE in Miami Beach as usual -- but also brought a key digital executive. “If there’s a trend,” says Packer, “it’s that people are coming to these markets and using them as a place for business development, especially in the digital space. So I told my head of digital to come and take those meetings.”

What was once only a market for domestic TV syndication has grown to encompass international and digital, including online, streaming and a growing number of subscription video on demand services around the world. “You’ve got so many different platforms converging,” adds Packer. “You don’t walk into this situation any more with a product, whether it’s a TV show, movie or whatever, and have a typical way to do it.”

That was reflected in the mix of deals announced at NATPE. CBS drama Elementary will get its first off-net run on Tribune’s WGN America; Telemundo and Spain’s Reset TV partnered on a Spanish language musical competition show; The Shine Group licensed 290 hours of programing – from MasterChef to Biggest Loser – to Discovery Latin America.

“This is the direction the industry is going in,” says Bill Carroll, vp/director of programing for Katz Media. “You have to find a partner to launch shows. It’s been that way before but lit is getting more involved. That’s part of a trend in terms of involvement on the part of stations.”

“The positive of that,” adds Carroll, “is because they have a stake in the show they’re going to be more involved in promoting it and nurturing the show. It makes sense for the stations and the production entity.”

And few shows launch at all unless any longer without partnerships behind them.. “What is happening with vertical integration is that if the planets align for a show, it clearly makes it easier to get going if there are several partners involved," says MGM president domestic TV distribution John Bryan. "It’s really just about trying to cut the risk as much as possible.”

Partnerships aren't always about production as companies look for innovative ways to spread the risk. For instance, notes Packer, Lionsgate acquired rights to the documentary Dinosaur 13 in January at Sundance in a partnership with CNN for about $1 million. Lionsgate is selling rights worldwide, except for U.S. television where CNN will have the broadcast window. "We were able to take advantage of their TV presence," says Packer, "and we came in with the other expertise including a theatrical release. That's how we got the movie."

The financial risk is also driving more testing. “We’re one of the few businesses that hasn’t always done R & D,” says Bryan. “We basically say, ‘Here it is,’ and throw it up there for 52 weeks and hope it works. So testing can make a lot of sense, especially when you’re introducing new talent.”

That was the case with the new talk sow staring MC Serch, which got a test run on Tribune stations, partners in the show with CBS. Sean Compton, Tribune’s president, programming and entertainment, said on a panel at NATPE, “For us, it was about, 'Is he good on camera?'” Serch apparently passed the test and is now likely to launch in September (although no official announcement has been made).

Testing on air has been done for several years on Fox TV stations, helping launch Wendy Williams and Bethenny. Last year Debmar Mercury tested Charlie Sheen in Anger Management on FX before committing to produce 100 episodes. Later this year a new George Lopez show from Debmar Mercury will get the same kind of test.

“It makes a lot of sense for us on our ten-ninety model (if the first ten shows are considered successful they produce 90 more) because we test it on air in the same environment where you’re going to run the rest of them,” says Packer. 

Carroll says he didn't see any new programming trends at NATPE but he did notice there were more station executives attending than in recent years and thanks to consolidation and money from retransmission consent, there was a new attitude. "They were more optimistic than a few years ago about the direction we are going," says Carroll, "which is a positive one."