Test-run programs: The new normal in first-run syndication

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Why risk-averse networks are increasingly relying on trial runs before committing to original programs

In many ways, "Page Six TV" — a new televised version of the New York Post’s infamous gossip page — continues some long-running boob tube trends: an obsession with celebrity, the mainstreaming of gossip, and panels of C-list comics scoring points off their more successful peers.

Less sexy, but maybe more significant, is how Fox is introducing the show. Yes, you could see "Page Six TV" on the air this week, but only if you happen to live in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta, Tampa or Detroit. The show, produced by the Post and Endemol Shine North America, is the latest program launched in what is now commonly known in first-run syndication as a "test run."

While the concept of the test run for new syndicated programming is nothing new (talker "The Real" from Warner Bros. was introduced in a series of select markets in the summer of 2013, as was Debmar-Mercury’s "The Wendy Williams Show" in 2008), it happens to be one of the fastest growing trends in broadcasting.

The primary reason, of course, is money. If a show fails to catch on — and many do — you avoid spending upwards of $30 million to launch a high-end production. But the model provides other benefits, too. Producers can use early feedback from test markets to tweak the show before rolling it out across the country. And for a station group like Fox, which has two stations in the same markets in a number of different cities (aka "duopoly"), these tests represent an opportunity to fill unused time periods. 

"The Fox network does not provide any regular programming other than primetime to its affiliates, so that opens the door to these time-period availabilities," said Bill Carroll, VP of content strategy at Katz Television Group. "And the luxury of launching as a test run is the ability to see if there is any initial interest. If there isn’t, you cut your loses significantly."

Another reason for the sudden surge in test runs is the decline of original locally produced programs. "This is what we used to refer to as a ‘farm team’ situation, where something locally could eventually be sold nationally," said Carroll. "The ‘Live!’ franchise started as ‘The Morning Show’ in New York and ‘Oprah’ as ‘A.M. Chicago,’ for example. But without the presence of these local shows now, test runs have become a replacement of sorts and can have more of a regional flavor."

On Sept. 12, daytime talk show "T.D. Jakes," (named for its host, a charismatic Dallas preacher), will debut in more than 50 markets following a successful test run in summer 2015. Also that month, "The Security Brief with Paul Viollis," from the Sinclair Broadcast Group, will expand to over 20 markets after a recent four-week test.

Other entries recently getting the test run treatment include "Top 30," a quick-paced news show aimed at the Millennial audience that appeared on a combination of stations from Fox, Media General and Sinclair this summer, and "The Jason Show," an entertainment-news program hosted by radio deejay Jason Matheson that appeared on four Fox stations.  Both debuted on June 6, and no decision has yet been made on either show’s fate. 

Of course, not every syndicated test-run entry makes it past the initial launch. Two notable failures include talk shows hosted by Kris Jenner and Fran Drescher.

Some shows are still thought to be worth the gamble of a national launch. NBCUniversal’s "Harry," a daytime talk-and-variety show hosted by Harry Connick, Jr., will debut on Sept. 12 in 99% of the country. That show was initially pitched as a companion to "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "The Steve Harvey Show," and has Connick’s popularity going for it. "But if it fails, who knows when — or if — we will see another national launch for a first-run syndicated series?" Carroll said.

As for the latest test run: If you happen to enjoy "Entertainment Tonight"; "Extra"; and "Access Hollywood," or more specifically "TMZ," "Page Six TV" might be worth a look. It’s good escapist fun, and carries a distinct New York flavor (the first episode included an item on disgraced NYC politician Anthony Weiner) that distinguishes it from its Tinseltown counterparts. If you’re into that sort of thing, the show goes down easy. So neither you, nor Fox, will have paid too high a price if it fails.