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American Journalism Review
Cashing In On The Syndication Bonanza  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE BUSINESS OF BROADCASTING    
From AJR,   December 1992

Cashing In On The Syndication Bonanza   

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     


Many local television news staffers dream of becoming rich and famous like network anchors. Even those who aren't "on-air talent" envision making an impact beyond their viewing area.

Changes in the industry have made it much harder to jump from local to network news. But there is another way to achieve notoriety and financial success in television news at the national level: syndication. It's still a long shot, but syndication continues to be a potential bonanza for those willing to spend the time, effort and money.
Syndication works in various ways. In news and information programming, syndicated material includes 60-second features for newscasts, 90-minute talk shows and technological products, such as computerized weather maps and storm-tracking systems.

Syndicated material usually is sold exclusively to stations city by city and priced according to market size. Sometimes no money changes hands; instead, a station may give the syndicator an agreed-upon amount of airtime for its own commercials.

Syndicated products often originate from local stations. For example:

•Steve Crowley was an accountant in Providence, Rhode Island, when WJAR asked him 11 years ago to appear periodically on the local news to offer financial advice. Today, his thrice-weekly two-minute news inserts are syndicated through his Fort Lauderdale-based company to nearly 100 markets.

•Houston's KTRK is responsible for one of news syndication's most colorful folk heroes, Dr. "Red" Duke. Duke, who looks and talks like he just got back from a cattle drive, is a leading trauma specialist and a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center. KTRK began running Duke's health reports in 1982; today some 60 other local stations air the feature.

•Perhaps the most successful locally bred syndicator is Phil Donahue. Twenty-five years ago Donahue was a frustrated radio and television newsman in Dayton, Ohio, when AVCO Broadcasting tapped him to host a 30-minute talk show at its local station. AVCO later sold Donahue's syndication and production rights to Multimedia, which is currently trying to duplicate Donahue's syndication success with Jerry Springer, a newscaster from its Cincinnati television station.

The potential for new syndicated talk shows, however, is limited. Even with cable as an alternative outlet, there are only so many shows that can withstand the increasingly fickle whims of the public.

There's a much bigger market for syndicated newscast inserts. Hundreds of stations air newscasts, and they don't always have enough breaking news to fill them up. A syndicated feature on a popular subject such as health or finances can hold the interest of viewers just as much as a fire or city hall scandal. The personality of the individual presenting the subject also may help attract a larger audience.

The sales potential for inserts already has generated intense competition. At the recent Radio-Television News Directors' convention in San Antonio, more than 16 organizations were trying to sell medical and health inserts for radio and TV. These included private entrepreneurs selling segments featuring medical doctors as well as organizations, such as the American Association of Retired Persons, which give away the inserts.

Several local television stations also were hawking their wares. Two Oklahoma City stations, KOCO and KWTV, were peddling new computerized storm-tracking systems. A San Antonio station, top-rated KENS, was selling five inserts that it had successfully aired on its own newscasts. These included commentaries by a KENS anchorman and a sportscaster.

"If a station is already producing a product, why not try to get something more out of it?" asks Tom Bier, news director at WISC in Madison. "Our company is taking a hard look at syndication because it's cost-efficient and profitable."

But there is no guarantee of success even if the product is bought by several stations. Ray Colie knows. In the early 1970s he was general manager of the Dayton station syndicating Phil Donahue. After AVCO moved the Donahue show to Chicago, Colie launched the syndication of a weather forecasting service and two news inserts dealing with food and medicine.

"When Donahue left, we wanted to keep everyone busy and creative," says Colie, now a consultant for his former station. "We found some success in 'Merle Ellis, the Butcher,' [a news insert on buying, preparing and cooking meat] that was eventually aired in 80 to 90 markets.

"But one of the difficulties we encountered were the news directors. They'd want us one year and not the next. Then there was the competition. For awhile there would be a dearth of syndicated material, then a lot of it for three or four years, then nothing again. It's difficult to sustain something in that environment. But if you can do it, it can be quite financially successful and gratifying."

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