Syndicated TV 3.0: Will FAST give us longer seasons?

Streamers’ 6-episode seasons can’t feed the bottomless pits of FAST

Ages come and pass. All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. Nothing is ever new in the TV business. Even the industry itself is a bunch of reboots and reruns. The latest “innovation” is FAST: free, ad-supported streaming television. When you get down to it, though, FAST is just the latest take on the industry’s old syndication model.

In this issue:

  • Syndication 1.0: Dawn of the rerun

  • Syndication 2.0: Fueling local TV

  • Syndication 3.0: FAST brings it all back

Syndication 1.0: Dawn of the rerun

ABC, CBS, and NBC once dominated the airwaves. The Big Three networks controlled the production and distribution of almost everything Americans watched on TV.

This control didn’t stop with the fresh content airing during prime time. Through the 50s and 60s, the networks accumulated back catalogs of old TV shows that they packaged and licensed to affiliate and independent stations.

Networks also produced shows for first-run syndication. Not part of the network’s primetime lineup, episodes would air for the first time on whichever local station bought the license.

The era of the rerun had begun. But since TV stations ran their reruns weekly or even daily, they needed a lot of content to keep their schedules full.

That’s why American TV shows ran twenty-plus episode seasons. Compare that to the BBC, which had little incentive to produce more than half a dozen episodes per season.

Syndication 2.0: Fueling local TV

By 1970, the Big Three networks had grown so powerful that they could dictate affiliate stations’ programming and charge almost any price for syndicated content. This power also threatened the viability of independent TV stations that relied on the syndication system to fill their programming lineups.

The US Federal Communications Commission curbed the networks’ potential for abuse by enacting the Financial Interest Syndication Rules and Prime Time Access Rules. Fin-Syn and PTAR limited networks’ abilities to dictate programming and control syndication revenues.

The new syndication model became a key profit engine for TV stations, letting them sell local advertising targeted at daytime and weekend viewers.

Even the rise of cable didn’t change the economics of syndication.

Syndication 3.0: FAST brings it all back

For a little while, it looked like streaming would kill off the rerun. Studios eager to mimic Netflix pulled their licensed content behind the paywalls of their new streaming services.

I’ve talked about how that worked out in multiple issues of the Stream Report. Studios desperate for cash are eager to license their back catalogs again. But broadcast TV stations and cable channels are struggling. People aren’t watching, which means advertisers aren’t paying.

Fortunately, the studios have a new customer. FAST services let people watch TV just like the good old days. Freevee, Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, Sling Freestream, Tubi, and other FAST services have hundreds of so-called linear channels that run shows one after the other in the same way broadcast TV has done for decades.

But unlike the local stations of yore, the most popular channels focus on specific themes like Mystery or Horror or even a single TV show like Beverly Hills 90210.

Our takeaway: Studio profits depend on feeding FAST’s hunger

To make this model work, however, the FAST services need enough content to fill these niche channels. That’s why they build so many channels around TV shows from broadcast TV.

The 980 episodes (so far) in the NCIS franchise would take almost six weeks to stream every episode — even with commercial breaks. And then there’s the 12,500 episodes of The Young and the Restless.

Compare that to the “traditional” streaming original. Even if Netflix wanted to share, hit shows like Stranger Things don’t work for FAST. The entire series would stream in less than two days.

To understand what this means for us, the content-watching public, consider these facts:

  • FAST channels need as much content as they can get viewers and sell ads.

  • Short-season content isn’t as profitable as long-season content.

  • Studios want to maximize profit by licensing content to FAST services.

Returning to the syndication model is a financial inevitability. Other than a few showcase shows, studios will stretch seasons to more lucrative lengths by spending less per episode.

Don’t think Netflix is immune. They discovered the religion of advertising the last time their numbers slumped. Netflix execs will sell their catalog to keep Wall Street happy.

And those daytime soap operas that networks canceled ten years ago? The Emmys better get ready if Susan Lucci’s coming back!

The Watchlist

Finding love doesn’t have an age limit. The Golden Bachelor premieres on Hulu, tomorrow, Friday, September 29th.

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Dive back into the world of The Boys, this time in the College Edition. Amazon Prime Video releases season 1 of Gen V, Friday September 29th.

In a 3-for-1 adult animation special, The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, and Family Guy all return with new seasons, streaming on Hulu, Monday, October 2nd.

All hands on deck! Our Flag Means Death returns to Max for its highly anticipated second season, dropping Thursday, October 5th.

Timey wimey wibbly wobbly things are happening, but The Doctor isn’t in, the God of Mischief is. Loki season 2 premieres on Disney+, Friday, October 6th.

If you could go back in time to save your mom’s friends from being murdered by a slasher, would you? Totally Killer hits Amazon Prime Video, Friday, October 6th.

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