The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on all linear television viewership, but since the new season began during the months of September and October, first-run syndication cumulatively is showing lesser declines than broadcast primetime shows, according to Nielsen data.
Broadcast entertainment primetime programming viewership has cumulatively declined by about 30% between Sept. 23 and Nov. 10, minus sports, while viewership of total day first-run syndication declined by around 20%.
While some syndicated programming categories have continued to struggle to bring back viewers, others are showing strong resurgence not only in ratings but also in advertising dollars taken in.
The top 10 most advertised-in first-run syndicated shows during the first eight weeks of the new season have garnered a cumulative $140 million in ad dollars, according to iSpot.tv data.
The most-advertised-in syndicated shows from Sept. 14 through Nov. 8 based on iSpot.tv data are Wheel of Fortune ($30.5 million); Family Feud ($18.7 million); Hot Bench ($14.4 million); Dr. Phil ($13.3 million); Daily Mail TV ($13.3 million); Entertainment Tonight ($13 million); TMZ ($9.6 million); The Doctors ($9.2 million); Jeopardy ($9 million); 25 Words or Less ($8.9 million); and Judge Judy ($8.4 million).
Eric Seiderbaum, EVP, video investment at Dentsu Aegis, says despite the fall off in syndication viewership, “the perennial leaders continue to be the leaders, even if their viewing is off a bit. All TV viewership has contracted so syndication is not an outlier.”
Seiderbaum adds: “Syndication advertising has been relatively stable because of the consistent spending by traditional advertisers. Those who believe in the power of syndication are continuing to advertise.”
Syndication’s biggest ad spenders are pharmaceuticals and consumer packaged goods, and Seiderbaum says that continues to be the case this fall. “These categories have weathered the storm well over the past eight months, primarily because their products are more stable in this environment, more so than, say, travel,” he says.
Game Shows Take Center Stage
Games shows Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy continue to be the kings — and Judge Judy the queen — of syndicated television. For the first two months of the new syndication season, those four most-watched syndicated shows cumulatively averaged nearly 32 million viewers per day and took in about $85 million in advertising, per iSpot.tv ad data.
And while eight-week viewership for those shows was cumulatively down about 8% — ranging from minus 2.5% for Family Feud to minus 11.7% for Jeopardy — the average nightly audiences for each were high enough to beat every broadcast network primetime show except for Sunday Night Football, 60 Minutes and The Voice in season-to-date averages.
In September and October, Family Feud averaged 8.4 million viewers, Wheel of Fortune and Judge Judy averaged 7.9 million, while Jeopardy averaged 7.8 million. And those four shows, according to iSpot.tv, took in almost $70 million in advertising.
Steve LoCascio, president of CBS Television Distribution, which distributes Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, says these shows continue to draw mass audiences in syndication because “it’s comfort food for viewers” and because they offer an escapism aspect when people are stressed out by the lingering COVID pandemic.
He also says preemptions aside, people have gotten accustomed to watching those game shows and they continue to be appointment television for many.
Court Shows Also Rule
The resurgence of the court shows was not limited to Judge Judy. Judy Sheindlin’s Hot Bench has averaged 2.4 million viewers, a solid number, even though it is down 11% compared to last fall. One reason the show might have lost viewers, in addition to the pandemic viewing patterns, was it gave up its 9 a.m. weekday time period to The Drew Barrymore Show. Both are distributed by CTD.
Based on total circulation, for the months of September and October, People’s Court was averaging 1.6 million (down 9.7%), flat from the same period last fall; Relationship Court was averaging 1.75 million viewers (down 15.4%); and Judge Mathis was averaging 1.2 million (flat). Taking the biggest percentage hit was Judge Jerry, which averaged 1 million viewers, down 25%.
Most Talkers Silenced
Taking the biggest percentage viewer loses among the syndicated shows this fall have been the talk shows. While most-viewed talker Dr. Phil is averaging 2.5 million viewers, that’s down 20% from the 3.2 million it was averaging last fall.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show is averaging 1.4 million viewers, down 42%, Maury is also averaging 1.4 million, down 12.7%, Kelly Clarkson Show is averaging 1.24 million viewers, down 33% and Wendy Williams is down 27%, falling below the 1 million viewer mark to 998,000. Dr. Oz has also fallen below 1 million viewers, down 22% to 843,000. And The Doctors lost 36% of its viewership to 412,000.
In syndication, however, viewership is not always tied into advertiser thinking. Take the case of Dr. Phil and The Doctors, both distributed by CTD.
Despite the sizable loss of viewers, Dr. Phil still took in $13.2 million in advertising in the period from Sept. 14 through Nov. 8, while The Doctors took in $9.2 million. Both shows are among the top 10 largest recipients of ad dollars for first run syndicated shows.
In the case of The Doctors, the show also changed its format and hosts. Significant to both shows, though, is that one of the largest ad categories in syndication is pharmaceuticals, and each show has a viewing audience those advertisers want to reach.
Beyond the returning talk shows, even the premiere season of Drew Barrymore has gotten off to a rocky start, averaging just 790,000 million viewers, less than half of the 1.86 million viewers Kelly Clarkson was averaging when it premiered last fall.
The lone exception in the talk show genre has been Live with Kelly and Ryan, which is averaging 2.5 million, down just 5.8% from its viewership last fall. And Tamron Hall has been averaging 1.1 million viewers, down 11.3% from last fall.
One ad agency executive who did not want to speak for attribution says the success of most syndicated talk shows is dependent on the chemistry and interaction that the hosts have with the live studio audience. And with COVID preventing live audiences, it has taken some of the gloss off some talk shows in the eyes of the TV viewers.
This exec pointed to Ellen DeGeneres, saying: “Ellen did have some bad publicity involving her interaction with her staff, but I don’t think that is why her viewership is down over 40%. One of the hallmarks of Ellen’s show is her interaction with her live audience. And that is not there right now. And it’s the same for guests doing entertainment performances with no one at the studio reacting.”
Conversely, one syndicated talk show where audience interaction is lessened because there are two hosts is Live with Kelly and Ryan. Hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest have long bantered more back and forth with each other than with the audience.
Their show is averaging 2.5 million this fall with viewership down the lowest among the talkers — just 5.8%.
As for Drew Barrymore’s slow start this premiere season, CTD’s LoCascio believes it has been more due to viewers being distracted by the election and that the show will now “start to pick up its stride.
“As far as we’re concerned, Drew is just launching her show now,” LoCascio says. “Now that we are past the election, her season really begins.”
Celebrities Lose Interest
Celebrity news shows are also down a significant number of viewers compared to last fall. Inside Edition, which still is most watched with 3.4 million viewers, is down 12.3%. Entertainment Tonight is down 20% to 3.2 million. Access Hollywood is down 26% to 1.4 million. TMZ is down 26.7% to 1.1 million. Daily Mail TV is down 18% to 922,000. And Extra is down 24% to 975,000.
Daily Mail TV, while recording a sizable loss of viewership, still took in $13.3 million between Sept. 14 and Nov. 8, per iSpot.tv, and it’s also among the top 10 first-run syndicated shows in ad dollars taken in.
Cassie Yde, president of Television Syndication Co. (TVS), which distributes eight regular weekly series including Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren, Small Town Big Deal and Sports Stars of Tomorrow, says viewership for the TVS stable of shows initially saw a 20% increase at the pandemic’s onset.
“When the pandemic first hit and sports began to be canceled, many stations around the country had lots of holes to fill on their schedules on the weekends,” Yde says. “We encouraged our suppliers, in addition to giving us one original a week to distribute, to also give us two or three extra repeat episodes and the stations gobbled them up.”
She says the TVS shows initially saw viewership increases by as much as 20%, but those numbers leveled off once professional sports returned beginning mid-summer. But even when there was increased viewership, advertising was down.
Yde says advertising has been off between 10% and 20% and been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels. However, viewership has remained up, in part, “because most of the weekly series are lifestyle programming which is more positive and uplifting.”
TVS is planning four new specials and a Christmas show for 2021 beginning in February.
As for new first-run series, Yde says she has been “hesitant to take on anything new because as long as sports are on the air, the weekends are tight for syndicated programming space around the country.”
And she adds, “with weekly syndication, you have to be in it for the long haul. It’s too expensive to create shows and then drop them after a season if they won’t work. You need to feel confident that a show will last three or more years before you go ahead with it.”
What’s Ahead For Daily Syndication?
Drew Barrymore was the only major new first-run series to premiere this season in national syndication.
In off-net, Debmar-Mercury rolled out comedy Schitt’s Creek into national syndication on Sept. 28 and the series has been averaging around 1 million viewers over its first eight weeks.
Big Bang Theory is the viewership leader among off-net comedies averaging about 4 million viewers per episode.
As for the status of other potential national first-run syndication launches, The Nick Cannon Show, which was supposed to debut this October in over 90% of the U.S., was put on hold following anti-Semitic comments made by Cannon on his podcast over the summer.
Lionsgate and Debmar-Mercury, producer and distributor of the show, released a statement saying while the show would not debut for the 2020 season, they are hoping to premiere it in the fall of 2021.
The People magazine entertainment news show, titled People (the TV Show) premiered on Sept. 14 and is running on Meredith-owned stations in 12 markets including Atlanta, Phoenix, St. Louis, Portland, Nashville, Kansas City and Las Vegas on CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates. Technically, it isn’t in national syndication right now.
When the show moves into national syndication in the fall of 2022, it will be distributed by Sony Pictures Television. It is being executive produced by Rob Silverstein, previously producer of Access Hollywood.
Sony will spend the next 21 months distributing the show to assorted stations beyond Meredith before rolling it out nationally.
“We are waiting for it to gain traction in the Meredith markets and we are also going to do deals that allow top stations around the country to pick it up prior to the national rollout,” John Weiser, president of first run programming for Sony Pictures Television, says.
Meanwhile Sony is concentrating on getting The Good Dish ready for distribution in fall of 2021. The show is an expansion of a segment titled “The Dish on Oz” that runs every Wednesday on the syndicated Dr. Oz Show.
It was initially a possible premiere for this fall, but Weiser says there’s no rush to move it out into national syndication.
“We decided to wait while we search for good partners and we are continuing to incubate it,” Weiser says. “We have 295 segments that we already have tested on air during the Dr. Oz Show. So we continue to test it before rolling it out. That is part of our strategy to take the risk out.”
Weiser says “The Dish” segment on Dr. Oz every Wednesday gets a 15% viewer lift for the show.
Sony is also moving ahead with its plans to increase activity in producing new game shows for syndicated distribution.
Sony now owns 100% of the Game Show Network and plans to produce a number of new game shows in the coming years. For the fall of 2021, Sony is preparing to launch off-network episodes of Game Show Network series Common Knowledge hosted by Joey Fatone.
The quiz show got a trial on assorted major Fox stations this summer and Sony has 260 episodes of Common Knowledge in its pipeline.
Weiser also says Sony is finalizing plans for some other game shows for premiere in fall of 2022.
Weiser says COVID has not hindered Sony’s development and the company is “actively developing shows for broadcast stations for various time periods.”
Judge Judy Gone, But Not Gone
Judge Judy is currently in the process of shooting its 25th and final season before Judy Sheindlin moves into her new court show project, with which CBS Television Distribution is not involved.
CTD does retain the rights to the Judge Judy library of shows, however, and is selling the repeats to various stations so it will continue to be in the business for years to come, following the end of first-run episodes this season.
Meanwhile Sheindlin has said she will start a new series produced by Amazon Studios titled Judy Justice. It will be available on the ad-supported Amazon streaming service IMDb.
Sheindlin has said the new series will be available as soon as episodes are filmed, but Amazon has not yet issued any details.
2021 And Beyond
Studio executives all agree that the COVID pandemic disrupted plans for the 2020 fall season and for development of potential new first-run syndicated programming for 2021. None would comment on specific plans for new shows for 2022.
But more than one believes it will get harder to develop successful first-run syndicated programs for television in the future.
“Every major studio is moving more resources into streaming production, and while we still see linear TV syndication as viable, I don’t think you will ever again see multiple, successful, big-name new syndication shows premiere in the same year again,” says one studio exec who did not want to be quoted for attribution.
While the old faithful big syndication hits continue to pull in viewers, it bears watching how voids will be filled if and when any more fan favorites like Judge Judy depart.
As for the passing of Alex Trebek, the legendary host of Jeopardy, while no successor has been announced, the thinking within the industry is that the show going forward will continue to draw at least close to the 7.8 million it has averaged this season.
Dentsu Aegis’ Seiderbaum, whose media agency Carat has numerous syndication advertisers, believes Jeopardy will “most likely continue to be widely watched. It is so ingrained in viewers TV watching habits that it would be hard for people to just stop watching, regardless of who the new host is. It will most likely continue to be a [syndication] success.”
Editor’s Note. This story originally said that Family Feud is distributed by CBS Television Distribution (CTD). It is distributed by Debmar-Mercury, but CTD sells the show’s ads.
Syndication has taken viewership hits across the board in the COVID era, but first-run’s declines have been lesser than those suffered by broadcast primetime and ad dollars have been stable. TVNewsCheck’s comprehensive look examines… Click To Tweet