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Are the Rules of TV Syndication Outdated?

June 21, 2010

Look at my new hotness Law and Order cast photo! Anthony Anderson, Jeremy Sisto and S. Epatha Merkerson

Broadcast Syndication describes the lucrative practice of turning TNT into the ersatz Law & Order channel, when it’s not also broadcasting endless reruns of Angel, Charmed, Bones and couple of others shows I have no real desire to watch regardless of which network attempts to force them on me. Conventional wisdom dictates the best shows for syndication are sitcoms with at least 100 episodes under their belt and a generally forgettable series conclusion – does anyone remember how I Love Lucy ends? Probably not. It just seems to go on and on forever. Of course, there are exceptions to the rules governing sitcoms; for the most part, it works better if they are easily recycled once they’ve completed an episodic revolution around the channel, as it were.

This same conventional wisdom also theorized the very elements making possible to never escape Seinfeld as long as you own a TV and receive any channels, make hour long dramas rather hopeless candidates for rebirth on the syndication circuit. I guess, TNT, cleared up that misconception. Of course, they weren’t the first to score a syndication hit with their cash cow – Law & Order; A&E was. Since this is not a post about the fabulousness that is Law & Order – a subject I could blather about ad nauseam – I’ll set it aside and get back to television syndication. There were other networks airing hour long dramatic programming well after their first run heyday – how else would I know of Perry Mason – but apparently, TNT has been the network most capable of making it profitable, or at least they make it seem that way. I have no understanding of the inner workings of syndication except a lot of the actors on all those 70s sitcoms got janky ass deals and often complain about this in their ghost written “memoirs”.

In the post “Leverage: The Season Three Job” I wrote as following:

I [also] appreciate cable’s tendency to go with shorter seasons. While shorter seasons have their drawbacks – as it relates to syndication deals – namely lower profit margin; striving for quality over quantity should always be encouraged. Longer seasons of even the best shows have a tendency to sag between sweeps periods. Shorter seasons allow for more diverse programing, since one show doesn’t monopolize a time slot for an entire conventional television season.

To date Leverage has produced 32 episodes (three have not aired) yet, the show is already in its third season. More importantly, I can say with all confidence, nearly every episode is flawless. However, the same cannot be said of Grey’s Anatomy – a show I thoroughly enjoy – which tends to produce bloated seasons of upwards of 27 episodes! I wonder how much more satisfying and tighter the episodes might be if there weren’t so damn many of them. In the age of DVD, torrents and Hulu why are we still fucking around with antiquated requirements and producers willing to delay profit earnings for a syndication future that might not materialize? I see you, Mad About You. Television is one way of getting content to viewers, not the only way. With serialized dramas, I find it infinitely more satisfying to hole up in my place for a weekend armed with a season worth of episodes of 24 – a show whose episodes I could not fathom watching slowly, painfully, one week at a time. Personally, I don’t know how y’all did it!

I have no idea where television should be going, but I know where we’ve been seems hopelessly out of step with the current desires, needs and attention span of the viewers.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2010 7:01 am

    I definitely agree that the syndication model as we’ve known it has outlived its usefulness. And while cable certainly weakened the network model of big investments and the concomitant big audiences and long-term sponsorship agreements, I think what’s finally starting to change things is the death of “appointment TV.” Basically, other than a few actual events like the Super Bowl or the Oscars, there’s little on TV that has to be seen in real time. TiVo, Netflix, Hulu, box sets, BitTorrent… all of these together spell out a huge audience that can’t be located at a particular time and place.

    But I don’t think there’s a problem with viewer attention span. If anything, I think with all the other entertainment options available, viewers are getting more focused on what they actually want to watch, instead of just plopping in front of their cable display device and looking to see what’s on.

    Finally, I think we’re seeing the rise of the TV director as a known quantity, at least in a sense similar to the way film directors are known. Say what you want about Joss Whedon, but he definitely has a built-in audience for whatever he does next regardless of who’s in it. And while the general public isn’t generally as knowledgeable about the folks behind the curtain as Snarky’s is, I’m hopeful that increased awareness of who’s making the sausage means there won’t be as much pressure to come up with the next big thing. Call it the “cocktail frank” model if you will.

  2. June 22, 2010 12:15 pm

    I am totally with you on the idea of shorter seasons! I think the Brits have been a great example of how to take a series and keep it streamlined and fresh and not falling into the 25+ episodes per seasons (or series as they refer to it) trap. Even shows that I absolutely adore – Buffy is an example that springs to mind – have filler episodes that are fluffy at best – swim team guys turning into monsters! – and downright painful at worst – Buffy drinks beer and turns into a neanderthal clone of Daryl Hannah from Clan of the Cave Bears! And I am a huge fan of those monster-of-the-week type episodes, but it can get a bit tedious when it feels like they are killing time so they can figure out how to wrap up the lager plot.

    As for the sitcoms needing 100 episodes to be syndicated thing, I kind of loathe that rule. It’s why Arrested Development is on IFC and not on basic cable. And yes, I know I could watch it on Hulu or whatnot, but I am one of those old people who hates watching television on my laptop.

  3. June 22, 2010 1:18 pm

    Exactly, Chris! Arrested Development would be a perfect show for syndication. It loops nicely onto itself and each episode works in and out of production order. With the success of a slew of vastly inferior imitators, audiences should be well prepared for the original.

    The Brits have done so well with shorter seasons – Life on Mars? Ashes to Ashes, Blood on the Wire – and HBO here as done well following the British model. Six Feet Under – holla, Dexter and Keith – had great success with the format.

    @Redlami, you’re definitely stumbled onto something with your concept of “appointment TV” and the attention span of viewers. I think that argument – attention span – is probably a red herring, which I’ve unwittingly absorbed!

  4. June 22, 2010 10:05 pm

    Yeah, I think I’ve fallen into the attention span trap too. For me it feels like it’s more about a wealth of choices and having to narrow down to what it is that I want to watch. But sometimes when people are all “You have to watch [insert show here they insist I will LOVE SO MUCH]!” I feel like a sugar-riddled child who can focus on nothing and then starts crying because making a choice is too hard.

    I actually wish we could go back in time and convince the SATC folks that, instead of 2 overlong, largely joyless films, to just do an occasional 6 episode series to scratch that itch.

  5. June 23, 2010 1:01 am

    Chriso, I think SATC is not really the kind of material that translates well to the screen. The story arcs are too intricate to attempt stand alone plots. I mean the plots of the first film were far too dour and lack much of the humor found in the show. And of course, the second film didn’t even take place in the “city” nor did it have much “sex” to speak of! I guess we were left with IN & AND. Lucky us.

  6. June 24, 2010 12:43 pm

    There are two sides to this point and I think both carry some import. The first is that the traditional sign of a “failed” television series was the famed “13 episodes.” In that way, unless you’re HBO and airing your series any time, Larry David, and ratings points don’t matter, nobody wants to wind up with that short a season. But second, as you correctly note, 100 episodes is the “golden” marker now, to basically guarantee a syndication deal with some cable system, so the rush to get to that number means seasons that are packed with eps, just in case the shine wears off after three years, you can limp along into your 4th and make it to the finish line.

    Between avoiding being seen as a failure and hurrying into syndication, we are getting network series that are longer per season. Also, it seems that there are many fewer “specials” or programs that pre-empt shows like there used to be in days of old, and that means more episodes as well.

    “Lost” and “24” hardly ever and never had reruns, respectively, in their time slots, and I think this helped set a trend for other shows. Where you used to be able to just recycle a few eps in the middle of the season, now, you can’t so much. Now that they’re both gone, it’ll be curious to see what happens next.

  7. June 24, 2010 1:40 pm

    Those are great points, Dean. and order of 13 usually denotes mid season replacement – like Grey’s or lack of confidence in a show.

    24 was great in a sense because the length of the season was spelled out in the title! Maybe we’ll see 12 one day too!

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