Back in 1990, a number of program futurists gave the business its last rites because new technologies such as cable and pay-per-view would, for sure, be stealing syndication's thunder and revenues.
Then in the late '90s, it should have walked the gangplank again, when the DVDs and this new Internet thing was supposed to zap it out of existence.
Now, for sure, it will die in the next couple of years, say executives--with all those people watching "The Office" on their iPods.
If competition outside the business wasn't enough, competition internally has taken its toll. Fewer off-network sitcoms--the backbone of local TV stations' revenues--get to market. First-run shows get increasingly harder to launch. Those that do get tiny 1.2 to 1.9 household ratings. Then, the next year stations replace shows with new first-run shows that earn--almost always--even smaller ratings.
That sounds like a dying business to me.
Now, after four months of back-to-back ground-breaking on on-demand and iTunes Music Stores deals, syndication--the original aftermarket of U.S. TV shows--should have a lot to talk about at the National Association of Television Program Executives meeting here this week.
Like why it isn't dead.
Seven new Monday to Friday strips from major studios/program suppliers will try their luck--though certainly not with new ideas. There's daytime talk. There are judges--and a dating show or two.
Syndication's core business--big studios selling programs directly to local stations--goes unchecked. Why? Because some programs do eventually fail. Because no one wants to see "M.A.S.H" in prime access anymore. Because Rosie O'Donnell has retired. (But now wants back in!)
The real secret is advertising. National advertisers' rates and total revenues have climbed almost every year since the 1980s. Local station advertising dollars have also continued to climb over the last two decades. That's a pretty good performance.
But TV station general managers shouldn't be asleep here.
New on-demand deals will force them to rethink new syndication deals. Should they lower cash license fees for off-network fare in the wake of virtually concurrent on-demand or iTunes program deals? Will they get the same exclusivity? Perhaps TV stations can work out profit-sharing deals if they can help market noncompetitive, on-demand, $1.99-a-download, commercial-free program deals.
Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television, told Daily Variety: "What's changed is that syndicators are adapting more smartly to the marketplace than, say, a decade ago. Their projects are more geared to station needs, rather than just flung at the dartboard."
Now those darts have been dipped with poison.
Death for syndication? They always seem to have a serum.