Why Syndication Is a Cornerstone of Media

A photo of people competing on the TV game show Wheel of Fortune
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Syndication is a term that is used in both print and broadcast media. It indicates content that is purchased for use by a local newspaper, tv or radio station. It is not produced by the media company's owner but through an outside source.

How Syndication Works

In the newspaper industry, comic strips, horoscopes, and national columns are often syndicated. A company has the right to sell the content to various local papers across the country. King Features Syndicate sells comic strips like Blondie and Hi and Lois to newspapers. It is owned by Hearst Corporation, a powerful owner of newspapers, magazines and TV stations. Another company, Universal Uclick, offers comics such as Garfield, Peanuts and the Dear Abby advice column.

A newspaper publisher, knowing that readers would enjoy reading the "funny pages", getting advice or their daily horoscope would sign a contract with a syndicator for a variety of content, based on the interest of the local readership. That content would be sent to the paper in time for publication.

It works the same way in broadcasting. Popular TV programs like Wheel of Fortune are sold directly to local stations. That's why Wheel may air on an ABC affiliate in one city and on an NBC station somewhere else. Most viewers will likely never know that the program isn't furnished by the network but was bought by the local station. Each station gets to choose the time slot to run its syndicated programming. That's why a popular show such as Jeopardy! may air in the mornings in one DMA and in the early evenings in another city.

Wheel and Jeopardy! are sold by the same syndication company, CBS Television Distribution, which will typically try to sell both shows to the same station, along with the company's other offerings, such as Dr. Phil or Judge Judy. Because stations don't need but a handful of shows to fill their daily lineups, the syndicator will likely have shows scattered across several stations in a market.

That will mean that a company like CBS Television Distribution may have its shows competing for viewers in the same timeslot on multiple stations. Dr. Phil and Judge Judy may be on at the same time on rival stations. It's inevitable that one show will have higher Nielsen ratings than the other, but despite sounding cannibalistic, the syndication company has the satisfaction of knowing that it made deals for both programs.

Don't let the name CBS Television Distribution confuse you. Yes, it is tied to the CBS broadcast network, but its mission is entirely different. That's why it will sell shows to stations affiliated with the other networks. There is a lot of money to be made.

Types of Broadcast Syndication

There are two types of broadcast syndication. A program like Dr. Phil is called first-run syndication. That's because the program was originally created to be sold to local stations. It is airing for the first time on local channels nationwide. The other type is called off-net syndication. These are reruns that were originally shown on the networks, usually in prime time.

Often, reruns of a TV network hit will be syndicated to local stations. Even though a series like Everybody Loves Raymond is no longer on the CBS prime time schedule, reruns air on local stations across the country, including those not affiliated with CBS.

When a show like Raymond becomes a hit, it can generate two large piles of money. The first is when it airs on the network and commands high advertising rates. The next is when it is sold in syndication.

Wheel of Fortune may be one of the most popular syndicated programs in TV history, but it got its start on the NBC network on its daytime lineup. Once it became popular on NBC, a syndicated version was created to sell to individual stations. The network version left the airwaves in 1989, but it's remained a monster hit in syndication.

A Different Way to Make Money in Syndication

Most of the popular syndicated shows are sold to stations, which then have the ability to sell most, if not all of the TV commercials within them. A station may have paid a huge amount to get Wheel, but it knows it can turn around and sell the commercials at a higher rate because of the show's popularity.

But a station may pick up a new show on a barter basis. The station will pay very little for the program but will allow the syndicator to sell most of the commercial time. The benefit to the station is that it can get a 30-minute or one-hour program for little investment, like to run in the wee hours of the morning, when it doesn't make sense to spend a lot.

The syndicator then gets the chance to sell the commercials in its own program and get it on in more markets across the country than would've otherwise been possible in a cash arrangement.