Syndication refers to the sale or distribution of television programs that are offered to multiple markets for non-network exhibition. As a practice, syndication stands opposed to network broadcasting where content and schedule are determined nationally for all affiliated stations. Syndication includes a variety of program types including movies, first-run series, re-runs of network programming, talk shows, game shows, foreign programs, and children's series. While syndication may resemble network distribution in that the same programs air over many separate outlets, the timing (day of the week as well as time of day) may vary from location to location. Serving as a counterbalance to network control, syndication has developed from the simple sale of off-network programming in the early 1950s, into a number of complex and varied business practices including off-net, first run, re-run, and barter syndication. More than just the distribution of programs, syndication regulations and practices have played a major role in the development of contemporary television. From the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) "Prime-Time Access Rules" (PTAR) and "Financial Interests and Syndication" (Fin/Syn) rulings, to the programming of UHF, cable, and even entirely new networks, syndication has been one of the most debated—and most important—business and programmatic practices within the television industry.
During the 1950s the television networks owned and controlled most of the programming they aired. The networks were able to present re-runs of programs, or sell the rights, even if they had minimal or no investment in the actual production. Networks defended this practice by arguing that they were equally responsible for the success of a series, since they promoted, placed, and provided the exposure for the program. This left them in the enviable position of taking minimal financial risk in a show's production, while at the same time enjoying long term profit from its being broadcast (and rebroadcast). Unable to risk the capital necessary to produce a series on their own, many independent production companies disappeared during these early years, and by the 1960s, almost all programming was produced by the networks or movie studios. In an attempt to limit the networks' monopolization of television production, exhibition, and distribution, the FCC examined syndication and made sweeping changes to network practices in 1970-1971. The FCC's motivation was to re-invigorate local and independent production, and to accomplish this goal they adopted the Fin/Syn and PTAR rulings.
The Fin/Syn rulings effectively ended network monopolies on syndication. Following these rulings networks could not syndicate domestically and could only sell a program internationally if they had completely financed the production. Furthermore, networks were limited in the number of programs they could produce, thus creating greater dependence on outside production companies. The PTAR, on the other hand, limited prime-time network broadcasts to the 8:00 to 11:00 pm slot in the top 50 television markets. In adopting these rules the FCC hoped that they would open access to programming, and encourage affiliates to air shows that were independently or locally produced. Rather than generating a resurgence of local programming, however, the PTAR led to the development of inexpensive shows which attracted a significant audience—often in the form of game shows like Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy. Ironically the FCC's decisions had tremendous economic ramifications which affected the television and movie industry alike. Given one year to divest themselves of their syndication services, networks sold these divisions. Such sales led to the formation of new companies like Viacom which, once a division of CBS, now owns Paramount Pictures and its own television network (UPN).
Syndication became increasingly important as television expanded and the new and independent Ultra High Frequency (UHF) television stations looked for programming. With the expansion of non-network stations syndicators found themselves in the enviable position of supplying content for a significant portion of the daily television schedule. Separated from the networks, the syndication industry became more profitable, powerful, and competitive, leading to new practices intended to make programs more economically attractive to affiliates. One such example is "barter syndication," which was designed to meet the needs of advertisers and affiliates alike. In this form of syndication, the distributor would give the program to affiliates free of charge in exchange for ad time on the program. By placing a program in enough markets around the country, the syndicator could then sell commercials to national advertisers and keep the revenue as their payment. During the early days of UHF, stations needing to fill their schedules were cash-poor, and barter syndication offered them a way to gain programming without expending their limited capital. Eventually, as stations became more established, syndicators would move towards a combination of cash payments and ad time for their programs.
The most common form of syndication is "off-network syndication," which refers to programs that have already aired on network television. The cost of these programs was generally recouped during their network runs, which meant that most of the syndication revenue became profit. Anyone who grew up watching television after the 1960s is familiar with a host of programs, from Gilligan's Island, F-Troop, or Rockford Files, to name a few, which were (and still are) aired in this manner. With the growth of cable, entire networks, such as TV Land, were built on the strength and popularity of off-network programming. A more recent trend has been "first run syndication," which refers to programs that are syndicated when they are new. While there is more financial risk in this type of syndication—since the costs are not absorbed through network exhibition—these programs offered tremendous control and profit potential to the producers. Perhaps the most famous shows distributed in this fashion include Baywatch, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a number of game shows. By the 1980s, the emergence and success of "first-run syndication" led to a new type of inexpensive programming know as "reality programming," "trash," or "tabloid TV."
With the success of cable television in the 1980s, syndicators once again experienced an increased demand for programs. Following the growth of independent stations, the expanded cable market made syndication one of the most profitable businesses in television. This all began to change by the late 1980s, however, as production companies recognized the greater value of their programs, and new networks emerged, reducing the number of independent stations. The first blow came with the formation of the Fox network, which combined a number of previously independent stations and supplied them with regular network programming. By the end of the 1980s syndicators experienced additional setbacks when the FCC eased syndication rules and polices, thus allowing networks more freedom to produce and distribute programming. This situation was then further exacerbated by the development of two new networks (WB and UPN) which committed many of the remaining independents to network programming. Nevertheless, syndication remains a viable, powerful, and profitable method of television distribution.
In addition to the economic ramifications, syndication has also created a unique cultural phenomenon: cross-generational exposure to television programming. Because of syndication, the favorite programs of one generation of television viewers may remain popular decades after they have aired. This practice appeals to a sense of nostalgia for some, and demonstrates the timelessness of television's generic programmatic qualities to others. In either case television is somewhat unique in that series and children's programs continue to be enjoyed for generation after generation.
The Economics of TV Programming and Syndication. Carmel, California, Paul Kagan Associates, 1994.
Erickson, Hal. Syndicated Television: The First Forty Years, 1947-1987. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1989.
MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television. New York, Pantheon Books, 1990.
Head, Sydney W., et al. Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Electronic Media. 8th edition. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998.