In the television industry (as in radio), syndication is the sale of the right to broadcast television programs to multiple television stations, without going through a broadcast network. (Much of this article will deal with U.S. television, since the U.S. has more consistently than most other countries featured large numbers of independently-owned stations which can, but don't need to, affiliate with one or more networks.) First-run syndication refers to programming that is broadcast for the first time as a syndicated show, or at least first so offered in a given country (foreign programs, first presented on a network in their country of origin, have often been syndicated in the US and in some other countries). Off-network syndication involves the sale of a program that was originally run on network television: a rerun. Public-broadcasting syndication has arisen in the U.S. as a parallel service to stations in the PBS network and the handful of independent public stations.
When syndicating a show, the production company, or a distribution company or "syndicator," usually attempts to sell the show to one station in each television "market", or area, in the country and around the world. If successful, this can be lucrative; but the syndicator may only be able to sell the show in a fraction of the markets.
Syndication differs from selling the show to a television network; once a network picks up a show, it is usually guaranteed to run on all the network's affiliates, on the same day of the week and at the same time (in a given timezone, in countries where this is a concern). Many production companies create their shows and sell them to networks at a loss, at least at first, hoping that the series will succeed and that eventual off-network syndication will turn a profit for the show.
Syndication also applies to international markets. Programs from the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina are syndicated to TV stations in the United States, and programs from the United States are syndicated elsewhere in the world.
One of the best-known internationally syndicated television series has been "The Muppet Show," which was produced in England and shown on their commercial network ITV, and appeared around the world, including the United States, where it aired in syndication.
While market penetration can varying widely and revenues can be unreliable, the producers often enjoy more content-freedom in the absence of network standards and practice officials; frequently, some innovative ideas are explored by first-run syndicated programming, which the networks are leery of giving airtime to; the early-1990s music program Sunday Night, later Night Music, for example, which offered intentionally-odd mixes of critically-favored musicians, such as (in one episode), Al Green, The Pixies, and the Sun Ra Arkestra. Meanwhile, top-rated syndicated shows usually have a market reach of 98%.
Syndication can take the form of either weekly or daily syndication. The games shows, some "tabloid" and entertainment news shows, and stripped talk shows are broadcast daily or weekdaily, while most other first-run syndicated shows are broadcast weekly.
When a show is syndicated to broadcast stations, it has been sold by a distributor to local stations or, increasingly, station groups, in as many markets as possible. In some cases, a show in broadcast syndication may be seen in one market but not in another. Thus, a television program can be syndicated and accessible by only a small portion of the nationwide television audience, but most of the more popular series are seen in most markets.
Off-network syndication can take several forms. The most common for is known as strip syndication or daily syndication, when episodes of a television series are shown daily five times a week. Typically, this means that enough episodes must exist to allow for continual strip syndication to take place over the course of several months, without episodes being shown again. If a small number of episodes exist, the entire run of the series can be shown in a manner of weeks.
For example, the NBC sitcom "Jesse" aired for only two seasons (1998-2000) and produced only 42 episodes. It was syndicated on the USA Network, with one episode airing daily, which saw the entire series broadcast in only 8 weeks (and a few days) before having to start again. As mentioned above, Seinfeld had 180 episodes and thus could be syndicated for 36 weeks, if one episode was shown daily.
In some cases, more than one episode is shown daily. Half-hour sitcoms are sometimes syndicated in groups of two or four episodes, taking up one or two hours of broadcast time.
If a series is not strip syndicated, it may be aired once a week, instead of five times a week. This allows shows with fewer episodes to last long in syndication, but it also may mean viewers will tire of waiting a week for the next episode of a show they have already seen and stop watching. More often, hourlong dramas in their first several runs in syndication are offered weekly; sitcoms are more likely to get stripped.
Barter vs. Cash
In syndication, the program is sold to stations for "cash" (rights are purchased by the stations to insert some or all of the ads at their level), given to stations for access to airtime (wherein the syndicators get the ad revenue), or the combination of both. The trade of program for airtime is called "barter."
As with radio in the U.S., television networks in their early years particularly didn't offer full-days-worth of programming for their affiliates, even in the evening or "prime time" hours; and, from the beginning, there were some stations which were not affiliated with any network, and all sought to supplement their locally-produced programming and whatever network feeds there were with items which could be flexibly scheduled. The developement of videotape and, much later, enhanced satellite downlink access furthered these aims.
Ziv Television Programs, Inc., after establishing itself as a major radio syndicator, was the first major first-run television syndicator, creating several long-lived series in the 1950s and selling them directly to regional sponsors, who in turn sold the shows to local stations. Among the most famous and widely watched Ziv offerings were Sea Hunt and Highway Patrol. Some first-run syndicated series were picked up by networks in the 1950s and early '60s, notably Superman and Mr. Ed. The networks started syndicating their reruns in the late 1950s, and first-run syndication shrank sharply, for a decade (CBS's first syndication arm, Viacom, would eventually be split off from the company and eventually come back to purchase CBS, having already purchased Paramount Studios and its interests, and created UPN). Some stalwart series continued, notably Death Valley Days; other ambitious projects were also to flourish, however briefly, such as The Play of the Week (1959-1961), produced by David Susskind (of the syndicated talk show Open End and also producer of such network fare as NYPD).
However, FCC rulings in the late 1960s curtailed the US networks' ability to schedule programming in what has become known as the "early fringe," notably the 7-8pm (ET/PT) hour of "prime time," with the stated hope that this might encourage more local programming of social and cultural relevance to communities (off-network syndie repeats were also banned); some projects of this sort came to fruition, though usually relatively commercial and slick ones such as the Westinghouse Group's Evening Magazine/PM Magazine franchise, and such pre-existing national projects as the brief commercial-television run of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s interview/debate series Firing Line. The more obvious result was a rash of Canadian-produced syndicated dramatic series, such as the Gilligan's Island knock-off Dusty's Trail and the Colgate-sponsored Dr. Simon Locke; game shows, often evening editions of network afternoon series, flourished, and a few odd items such as Wild Kingdom, cancelled by NBC in 1971, had a continuing life as syndicated programming tailor-made for the early fringe.
Into the 1970s, first-run syndication continued to be an odd mix; cheaply-produced, but not always poor-quality, "filler" programming, such as the dance-music show Soul Train, several sports-history series and 20th Century Fox's That's Hollywood, a television variation on the popular MGM That's Entertainment! theatrically-released collections of film clips from their library; imports such as the impressive documentary series Wild, Wild World of Animals (repackaged by Time Life with narration by William Conrad) and Thames Television's sober and necessarily grim The World at War; and a few ambitious, if not necessarily well-executed, dramatic series, including the science fiction series The Starlost (1973; Canadian, though apparently corrupted from the vision and advice of US SF writers Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova) and Space: 1999 (1975), from the UK team, the Andersons, previously best-known for their "Marionation" (puppet/animation) series. Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (1973) was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series attempting to ape the All in the Family-style sitcoms; Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1969) was an Australian children's series in the manner of Flipper or Gentle Ben (a decade later, the decidedly not-for-children Australian Prisoner: Cell Block H would have a brief US syndicated run); and a Canadian sketch-comedy series began appearing on US television stations in 1977--Second City Television would eventually find a home, for two seasons, on NBC, as SCTV Network 90 (and on cable station Showtime later). The Universal Studios-produced package of original programming, Operation Prime Time, began appearing on ad hoc quasi-networks of (almost by necessity) non-network stations in the US in 1978, with a mini-series adaptation of John Jakes's The Bastard. The most successful of syndicated shows in the US in the 1970s was probably, as mentioned above, the UK-based The Muppet Show. From the latter '60s into the late '70s, Westinghouse also found considerable success with The Mike Douglas Show, a variety/talk show hosted by a singer with an easygoing interview style, which played in afternoons in most markets; similar programs soon followed featuring Merv Griffin, who had been the host of CBS's most sustained late-night answer to The Tonight Show previously, and another network veteran, Dinah Shore. Also notable was the growing success of audience-participation talk shows, particularly that of the innovator of the format, Phil Donahue.
During the latter 1980s and early 1990s and throughout the remainder of the decade there was a resurgence of dramatic first-run syndicated programs, many of them in the science fiction and fantasy fields, or adventure dramas with fantastic elements. Baywatch aired on NBC for one season and was cancelled, but became very popular in the U.S. with new episodes in syndication and extremely popular worldwide) and Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in 1987 and became one of the most-watched syndicated shows for the next seven years. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was also syndicated. Along with the latter-day Star Trek series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spin-off series Xena: Warrior Princess helped build the audiences for such shows; Babylon 5 and Forever Knight drew devoted "cult" audiences; PSI Factor and Poltergeist: The Series attempted to draw on the audience for the FOX series The X-Files (as did, even less probably, the shortlived spinoff Baywatch Nights). Among the slightly less fantasticated series were Relic Hunter and VIP, She Spies and Once a Thief. In 1997, Earth: Final Conflict, based on ideas from the late Gene Roddenberry, premiered in syndication. Three years later, a second Gene Roddenberry series, Andromeda also premiered in syndication.
Also in the 1980s, news programming of various sorts began to be offered widely to stations. ITN Network News was a half-hour weekdaily program that ran for several years on independent stations ("ITN" apparently stood for "Independent Television News"); CNN would offer a package of its Headline News to broadcast stations later. Entertainment Tonight began its long and continuing run as a "soft" news daily strip, with a number of imitations following; and "tabloid" television, in the wake of ABC's 20/20 and, more immediately, Fox's A Current Affair, would become a syndication staple with such series as Extra and Real TV. Another area where network dominance was challenged by syndicated programming in the 1980s was in late-night talk shows; The Arsenio Hall Show was the first and only very successful one, but Alan Thicke's earlier shortlived Thicke of the Night, Lauren Hutton's innovatively-shot Lauren Hutton and..., and Dennis Miler, Whoopi Goldberg, David Brenner and Keenan Ivory Wayans attempted similar programs; the only syndicated latenight contender to fail as infamously in ratings and critical reception as CBS's The Pat Sajack Show and Fox's The Chevy Chase Show was The Magic Johnson Show.
As UPN and the WB began offering their affiliates ever-more nights of primetime programming, less call has been felt for first-run drama, at least, in the US; much as with the closing of windows that provided opportunity for Ziv in the '50s and various producers in the early '70s. The more expensive dramatic projects are less attractive to syndicators (particularly when they might be sold, with somewhat less risk, to cable channels); "reality" series such as Cheaters and Maximum Exposure and several series about dating stunts began to be more common in the early 2000s; even among these, a few programs have gained some positive critical attention, notably Animal Rescue and Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures.
Several game shows are currently syndicated, with and without network counterparts; the most popular are Wheel of Fortune and the latest incarnation of Jeopardy!, both of which are seen by millions of viewers on a daily basis, and have been for over two decades. The dominant form of first-run syndication in the US for the last three decades has been the "stripped" talk show, such as Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and The Jerry Springer Show. In many markets, a stripped show will be seen twice daily, usually with different episodes. Sometimes, station groups with more than one station in a market, or a "duopoly," will run one episode of a strip on one of their stations in the morning, and the other available episode on another of their stations that night.
Meanwhile, the popularity of some of the audience-participation talk shows continues to encourage new participants, some of whom, such as Morton Downey, Jr. and Rosie O'Donnell, have brief periods of impressive ratings and influence; others, such as Oprah Winfrey and Maury Povich, have a sustained run. A notable scheduling decision was made by KRON-TV in San Francisco; a dispute with NBC led to their disaffiliation from the network, and since all the other larger networks were already represented in San Francisco, KRON decided to become the largest-market independent commercial station on the VHF band in the US, with the exception of Los Angeles's Disney-owned KCAL, and soon tried running Dr. Phil, a popular new stripped series hosted by Winfrey-associate Phil McGraw, in primetime, with impressive ratings results.
It is commonly said in the US industry that "syndication is where the real money is" when producing a TV show. In other words, while the initial run of any particular television series may theoretically lose money for its producing studio, the ensuing syndication will generate enough profit to balance out any losses. Off-network syndication occurs when a network television show is syndicated in packages containing some or all episodes, and sold to as many television stations/markets as possible. Sitcoms (short for "situation comedies") often do better in syndication than some dramatic shows due to the fact that most sitcoms have few ongoing storylines; a viewer can tune into many half-hour sitcoms without worrying about having missed the last episode. With some dramatic series, missing an episode can throw off the viewer, even if the episode itself is a self-contained story. Syndicators and stations often will run episodes of some series out of order, for a variety of reasons; often this is easier with a sitcom than with a series with more pronounced serial elements.
As an example of off-network syndication, the comedy show "Seinfeld" ran on the NBC television network from 1989 to 1998. Sony/Columbia Pictures syndicated the show to local TV stations in 99% of the markets in the country in 1994, the year that the show entered the top 10 list of network shows, and it became the most successfully syndicated rerun ever. In 1998, TBS bought cable rights to all 180 episodes of the show for 4 years, paying somewhere between US$120 million and US$180 million.
Cable stations have been known to vie among themselves for off-net syndication; in 2005, episodes of the series Law and Order were appearing on two cable channels (USA and TNT), having previously been seen on a third (A&E); Roseanne likewise was visible on multiple cable channels. Other series seen on multiple cable channels simultaneously were often being shared by channels which had the same corporate owners.
While in earlier times, independent TV stations thrived on syndicated programming (including some venerable and quite profitable stations such as KMSP in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market), with the loosening of FCC regulations and the creation of three additional TV networks (Fox, The WB and UPN), most of these independents have become unprofitable and ceased operation, or more often joined one or another of these or smaller (religious or low-budget) networks.
Can use a lot more history.
See also 100 episodes
- Syndicated Shows Of 1987 (http://www.tvobscurities.com/pages/syn87.php)