Broadcast syndication is the practice of leasing the right to broadcasting television shows and radio programs to multiple television stations and radio stations, without going through a broadcast network. It is common in the United States where broadcast programming is scheduled by television networks with local independent affiliates. Syndication is less widespread in the rest of the world, as most countries have centralized networks or television stations without local affiliates. Shows can be syndicated internationally, although this is less common.
Three common types of syndication are: first-run syndication, which is programming that is broadcast for the first time as a syndicated show and is made specifically to sell directly into syndication; off-network syndication (colloquially called a "rerun"), which is the licensing of a program whose first airing was on network TV or in some cases, first-run syndication; and public broadcasting syndication.
In first-run syndication, a program is broadcast for the first time as a syndicated show. Often it is made specifically to sell directly into syndication and not made for any particular network.
In off-network syndication, a program whose first airing was on network television (or, in some cases, first-run syndication) is licensed for local broadcast on individual stations. Reruns are usually found on stations affiliated with smaller networks like Fox, MyNetworkTV, or The CW, especially since these networks broadcast one less hour of prime time network programming than the Big Three television networks and far less network-provided daytime television (none at all for these networks). A show usually enters off-network syndication when it has built up about four seasons' worth or between 80 and 100 episodes, though for some genres the number could be as low as 65. Successful shows in syndication can cover production costs and make a profit, even if the first run of the show was not profitable.
This type of syndication has arisen in the U.S. as a parallel service to member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the handful of independent public broadcasting stations.[clarification needed] This form of syndication more closely resembles the news agency model, where nominally competing networks share resources and rebroadcast each other's programs. For example, National Public Radio (NPR) stations commonly air the Public Radio Exchange's This American Life, which may contain stories produced by NPR journalists.
When syndicating a show, the production company, or a distribution company called a syndicator, attempts to license the show to one station in each media market or area, or to a commonly owned station group, within the country and internationally. If successful, this can be lucrative, but the syndicator may only be able to license the show in a small percentage of the markets. Syndication differs from licensing the show to a television network. Once a network picks up a show, it is usually guaranteed to run on most or all the network's affiliates on the same day of the week and at the same time (in a given time zone, in countries where this is a concern). Some production companies create their shows and license 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. A syndicated program is licensed to stations for "cash" (the stations purchase the rights to local insertion some or all of the advertisements at their level); given to stations for access to airtime (wherein the syndicators get the advertising revenue); or the combination of both. The trade of program for airtime is called "barter."
In the United States (as a result of continued relaxation of station ownership regulations since the 1970s), syndicated programs are usually licensed to stations on a group level, with multiple stations owned and/or operated by the same broadcasting group carrying the program in different markets (except in areas where another station holds the market rights to the program) – making it increasingly more efficient for syndicators to gain widespread national clearances for their programs. Many syndicated programs are traditionally sold first to one of five "key" station groups (ABC Owned Television Stations, NBC Owned Television Stations, CBS Television Stations, Fox Television Stations and Warner Bros.), allowing their programs to gain clearances in the largest U.S. TV markets (such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, where all five aforementioned groups each own stations), before striking deals with other major and smaller station owners. Shows airing in first-run syndication that are carried primarily by an owned-and-operated station of a network may sometimes be incorrectly referenced as a network program, especially if said network's syndication wing distributes the program, regardless to its distribution to stations of varying network affiliations and despite the fact it is not part of an individual network's base schedule.
Since the early 2000s, some programs being proposed for national distribution in first-run syndication have been test marketed on a selected number of or all stations owned by certain major station group, allowing the distributor to determine whether a national roll-out is feasible based on the ratings accrued in the selected markets where the program is being aired.
While market penetration can vary widely and revenues can be unreliable, the producers often enjoy more content freedom in the absence of network's standards and practices departments; frequently, some innovative ideas are explored by first-run syndicated programming which the networks are leery of giving airtime to. Meanwhile, top-rated syndicated shows in the United States usually have a domestic market reach as high as 98%. Very often, series that are aired in syndication have reduced running times. For example, a standard American sitcom runs 22 minutes, but in syndication it may be reduced to 20 minutes to make room for more commercials.
Syndication can take the form of either weekly or daily syndication. Game shows, some "tabloid" and entertainment news shows, and talk shows are broadcast daily on weekdays, while most other first-run syndicated shows are broadcast on a weekly basis and are usually aired on weekends only. Big discussion occurred in the 1990s and 2000s about whether previously aired episodes of a show could become syndicated while new episodes of it continued to air on its original network. There had been much opposition to this idea and it was generally viewed to lead to the death of the show. However, licensing a program for syndication actually resulted in the increased popularity for shows that remained in production. A prime example is Law & Order.
The emergence of barter syndication in the 1980s caused the number of independent stations to grow from fewer than 100 in 1980 to 328 as of 1986[update], as they did not need cash for programming. With the loosening of FCC regulations and the creation of new additional broadcast networks (such as The CW and MyNetworkTV), most of these independents have joined one or another of these or smaller (religious or low-budget) networks.
In other cases, like those of KCAL-TV in Los Angeles, KMCI-TV in Lawrence-Kansas City and WMLW-TV in Racine-Milwaukee, those independent stations are used to complement their network-affiliated sister station (respectively in the mentioned cases, KCBS-TV, KSHB-TV and WDJT-TV) by allowing a duopoly control of more syndicated programming than would be possible on one station (and to spread it throughout the schedule of the two stations, often several times a day), or to air news programming in times unavailable on the larger network station, along with fulfilling network and syndicated programming commitments, which allows popular or network programming to be moved to the independent stations due to breaking news or sports commitments without the traditional inconvenience of a late night or weekend airing of the pre-empted show. A duopoly of a network-affiliated and independent station also allows a network station to move a low-rated syndicated program to their sister independent station to stem revenue losses.
In 1993, Universal Television became one of the first studios to cash in on the cable trend, first selling repeats of Major Dad to USA Network in 1993 for $600,000 per episode, the first time a network program was exclusively sold to a cable network for its first run rights. Later it sold reruns of Law & Order to A&E for about $155,000 an episode; in 1996, the studio got $275,000 from USA Network for repeats of New York Undercover, a far less successful show. Law & Order drew A&E's highest daytime ratings – one million viewers per episode.
Universal sold reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to USA Network for $300,000 each. And even long-forgotten shows can find new life: Paramount Network bought The Dukes of Hazzard from Warner Bros. in 1997 for well over $10 million. USA Network paid $750,000 for the rights to Walker, Texas Ranger; while USA's reruns of the show drew an average of 2.3 million viewers – outstanding by cable standards – Perth says the show will need "an enormous number of airings to have any sort of profitability."
Sources: Industry sources and Paul Kagan Associates, Inc. Per episode 
|Year sold||Show||Studio||Cable network||Price*|
|1986||Falcon Crest||Warner Bros. Television Studios||Turner Broadcasting||$10,000|
|Knots Landing||Warner Bros. Television||Turner Broadcasting||$12,000|
|1988||Murder, She Wrote||Universal Television||USA Network||$525,000|
|1991||Unsolved Mysteries||HBO Distribution||Lifetime||$180,000|
|1993||The Commish||ABC Productions||Lifetime||$195,000|
|1994||Law & Order||Universal Television||A&E||$155,000|
|1995||Melrose Place||CBS Studios||E!||$200,000|
|Picket Fences||20th Television||FX||$190,000|
|Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman||Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution||TNT||$275,000|
|Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman||CBS Studios||CBS||$250,000|
|NYPD Blue||20th Television||FX||$400,000|
|1996||Xena: Warrior Princess||Universal Television||USA||$300,000|
|Hercules: The Legendary Journeys||Universal Television||USA||$300,000|
|Chicago Hope||20th Television||Lifetime||$475,000|
|Homicide: Life on the Street||Universal Television||Lifetime||$425,000|
|The X-Files||20th Television||FX||$600,000|
|Walker, Texas Ranger||CBS Studios/Sony Pictures Television||USA||$750,000|
|ER||Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution||TNT||$1.2 million|
Not all programs in syndication are sold for a fee. Less popular programming may be distributed by barter, in which the syndicator, instead of selling the show to a station, offers the show for free, with the caveat that the station give up its advertising time on other shows to the syndicator's advertisers. Barter syndication, in addition to the cost advantage, is popular because of its flexibility; a station can typically pick up a barter syndicated program for only a few weeks or months, without the long-term financial commitment of a traditional syndicated series, allowing the station to plug the show into its lineup to fill a hole in the schedule.
Cash deals are when a distributor offers a syndicated program to the highest bidder. A cash plus deal is when the distributor retains advertising space to offset some of the cost for the program. The station gets the program for a little less in exchange for some ad space for the producer.
Barter deals are usually for new untested shows or older shows. In this type of deal, distributors get a fraction of the advertisement revenue in exchange for their program. For example, in a 7/5 deal the producer gets seven minutes of advertising time, leaving five minutes for the station to insert local as well as national advertisements.
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