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Old October 15 2012, 04:03 PM   #43
Re: First-run syndicated television dramas from the late 80s-90s

Yes! I wrote at length about first-run syndication in a few DS9 threads about the show's ratings or trying to get people to understand what exactly syndication was.

I was trying to compile a list of where all first-run syndicated shows were produced. I have the file somewhere but it was a wild list. Off the top of my head: Los Angeles/Hollywood, San Diego, Florida, Vancouver, Toronto, Alberta, Mexico, France, South Africa, western Australia, southern/eastern Australia, New Zealand. I had a list somewhere too.

Syndicated shows seemed to favor these for the currency ratio (the same currency imbalance between USD & CAD that devastated Canadian NHL teams made it extremely lucrative to film up there), for the exotic locations. Many utilized local talent, which is why some Lord of the Rings actors had also appeared in Xena & Hercules. Ironically through that you can see a map of which places were well-connected and which were not (South Africa was very far off the beaten path).

Syndication was great. It provided content for independent stations to compete against the big networks and syndicated shows by their nature appealed to currents in the mainstream that were not really being served by the networks (after NBC had an action pack for the mid '80s, action dramas tended to fade from the big three/four). Before UPN & WB, they often filled weeknight primetime or on the weekends in afternoons or primetime (Star Trek: TNG commonly aired Saturday, what was it, 6 or 7PM?). The weekend before cable became more commonplace was a dead zone past Saturday mornings (which was killed by E/I, but that is a story in itself). Networks did program on Saturdays til around 2000. They usually had a lot of sitcoms (Golden Girls was probably the most notable Saturday time-slotted show) and NBC had the great Pretender/Profiler pairing on Saturday nights until they destroyed it for a surefire hit like the XFL (rolls eyes). Everything else was just baseball or golf in the afternoons or if you were lucky, those cheesy B-movies running the gamut from sci-fi to horror, kung fu/karate films to Japanese monster films as well as reruns of shows like the '60s Batman or other action/sci-fi shows. Seriously, I remember a lull between when a lot of those movies/shows weren't aired locally and Saturday afternoons was just golf, baseball, with the only interesting thing to watch was Bob Ross' Joy of Painting or some PBS travel shows.

The short of what ended the syndication boom was:
- The rise of UPN & WB. They took up all the primetime weeknight slots pushing everything to the weekends. With more shows than ever before and less space, many were pushed to late night timeslots where they got negligible ratings. The top handful did keep timeslots in waking hours though.

- The popularity of still-running sitcoms just entering syndication. Shows like Friends, Seinfeld, even The Nanny and some dramas like The X-Files, ER, once they entered syndication, began to off-set first-run shows. They flooded in over 97-98 and took the choice timeslots on Saturdays & Sundays. Yes, in at least one big market, sitcoms like The Nanny & Friends pushed Hercules & Xena into overnight hours (fans complained of timeslot changes with Herc & Xena around Jan 1999. In a few markets, they got pulled on the grounds of declining ratings though big picture that we know now- 98-99 saw ratings plunge across the board, network big & small, syndicated, whatnot).

- Declining ratings overall. This was due to the rise of cable subscriptions and people spending more time on the internet (often for the first time, well first couple of years anyway). Broadcast networks were hit too, but the fringe areas always get hit first/hardest, thus the syndicated frontier. Complicating this was the popping of an ad rate bubble. From about 1995-2000, syndicated shows were able to charge ever-growing rates for ads, rates that reflected ratings growth in syndication over the early '90s, but not the late '90s. It popped in the early '00s recession. In fact, the 2000-01 season was described in advertising journals as the worst year for advertising in 50 years. Syndication was squarely hit by the fallout from this.

- Collapse of international funding. A lot of these shows had a mishmash of international backers, including German & French entities. Highlander explicitly survived this way (US ratings below the cancellation threshold for at least half its run) and I suspect Baywatch did too (~95 or 96, its ratings fell away from the top 3. By the 95-96 season, Hercules, Xena, and DS9 shut out Baywatch from the top 3 ratings slots every week except for just a the smallest handful of weeks). Something happened around 2002 or so that made it hard for shows that could get renewed to do so (Lost World, Adventure Inc.). It was so bad, even ratings-leader Andromeda would have been cancelled if Sci-Fi Channel didn't step in and foot the bill (thus Season 5's dual arrangement).

As for Rescue 3, I would wish it well, but I don't think it will fare too well. Tribune tried the same thing with Legend of the Seeker. It had tepid ratings and was cancelled after 2 years. One would have to sell shows internationally to subsidize their presence now. I'm not sure the international market is stable. Europe is entering the recession it was protected from for a few years due to all the economic drama going on there, there are serious concerns about China (ghost cities built to keep up construction spending, phantom steel betted as collateral for loans). The syndication boom occurred in the '80s and '90s, which were a very good time economically, just an early '90s recession (notice the biggest part of the boom occurred after this recession was over). More broadly, non-network shows have to get creative and usually be low budget to get made. They're like the Moneyball A's of the television world. To clarify....

Currency differentials played a big role in lowering the total production costs of shows as well as localizing local acting talent. Canada was perfect, low currency, high quality actors (for the world). New Zealand also had fairly good talent (South Africa did not). The syndicated boom for cartoons got started in the mid '80s. Outside of Filmation (He-Man, She-Ra, Bravestarr), many shows did this by utilizing Japanese animation companies (again the currency differential), which had high quality talent & low cost due to the currency differential (Japan loves to maintain a cheap Yen since they're a net exporter). This boom lasted from the mid '80s to about 1999 when E/I cut off their funding source (advertising restrictions). Besides trying to keep costs down, to compete on tv, shows needed to spend at least something (a salary floor of sorts), which is where international financing was needed because evidently, American financiers were not forthcoming or were for only very few shows. Star Trek benefitted from having a big movie studio behind them (Paramount), who was big enough to partner another company to launch UPN (Warner Bros + Tribune= WB, Paramount + Cris-Cross= UPN). Some, like Babylon 5 were very efficient in keeping costs down (B5 actually came in underbudget). While JMS gets all the credit, the other half of B5's success was an old guy named Doug Netter who oversaw the production, including the CGI.

In short (too late), I don't think the ratings are there. Even CW has horrific ratings (seriously, look their ratings up). They seem to be approaching/have crossed the unsustainable threshold and need international sales and/or DVD sales to support the shows. BTW, UPN & WB never turned a profit in their 11 1/2 year history. UPN was a much bigger money pit than WB was.

And don't think this was the only time syndication boomed. It also boomed in the '50s & very early '60s. As television channels started to expand their broadcast hours, they needed more content to fill it. There were very few independent stations then (there were a few due to the collapse of DuMont Network in markets with 4+ tv stations. Indepenent stations really started to take off in the late '60s onward) so this was off-primetime programming (network primetime schedules were larger then than now due to extending an hour earlier [the time taken away from the networks with the implementation of the Prime Time Access Rule ~1971] and programming a full slate for Saturdays). Whereas there were quite a few companies involved in syndication in the '80s/90s, at this time, it was mainly Ziv and small companies putting out a series or two. The biggest shows from this time were Highway Patrol & Sea Hunt. Yeah, these shows tended to have more action compared to the networks too. A black & white forerunner to the '90s syndicated action boom.

.... Ok, I'll try to post the list of syndicated shows I managed to gather in a bit.
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