What is a syndicated program?
A syndicated program is a program that runs on a different television network than the one on which it was initially broadcast, or a program that was not created for a specific network. In the U.S., syndication generally comes in two forms: first-run syndication and off-network syndication.
First-run syndication generally refers to programs that are created explicitly to be sold into syndication. Some of the most popular game shows and talk shows in the country are first-run syndication programs. These include wildly popular and long-running programs such as Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, and Judge Judy.
Off-network syndication is likely the better known of the two. That is where a program originally created to be aired on a specific network is licensed by another network or smaller affiliates for re-broadcast. When you think of those reruns of MASH, you’re mostly thinking of an off-network syndicated program.
How syndicated programs work
During or after a program’s run on a network the creators of the program will sell right to a different network to air episodes that have already run on the original network. A program that has had a successful run on its original networks is more likely to be sold to syndication. Sometimes, even unsuccessful shows get a second life in syndication and while rare, some shows get renewed by their original networks simply to reach the 88 episode threshold that generally triggers syndication interest.
While many programs are developed by and for specific networks, some new programs are developed independently of the broadcast television networks then sold a network through syndication. Let’s Make a Deal, for example, aired as first run syndication. This can be very lucrative for the creators as it often allows the show to run for long periods of time because it can move around from network to network, and in some cases, run in more than one station at the same time. For lower cost shows like talk shows and game shows, this is especially common.
With the emergence of online viewing networks, such as Amazon and Netflix, program creators have increased options to syndicate their shows. Often these shows are sold season by season and can often be very lucrative for the content creators. Online binge viewing habits have changed the syndication game as viewers of streaming services expect to have access to entire seasons or even the entire series of a show and streaming offerings require a great deal of content options to keep subscribers happy.
Eighty-eight is the magic number
When it comes to off-network syndication, stations want to know that their investment in the licensing of said program will have long-term effects. As such, it is rare that a first-run show gets picked up for syndication before it reaches 4 full seasons. With the trend in season episode numbers reducing over recent years, that magic number where syndication becomes cost-effective is usually 88 episodes, down from about 100 episodes in previous decades.
Syndicated programs are generally not network exclusive, like original programming often is. This means that shows can air on multiple networks at the same time (and sometimes in the same time slots). Wildly popular shows like Judge Judy get enough viewership that it is still cost effective for networks to license it even though they aren't exclusively doing so.
Why syndicated programs matter
Syndicated programs can generate a lot of revenue for a show’s creators and investors. Seinfeld, for example, was sold into syndication for $3 million per episode and is an ongoing source of revenue for the original investors in the show and others with a financial stake. As of this writing, the show has made more than $4 billion in syndication and it is rumored that the show's creators have made $400 million alone since the last new episode aired in 1998.
Nostalgia can build audiences, and popular old shows such as M.A.S.H. and the Brady Bunch keep audiences coming back. The rise of cable in the 1980s and 1990s brought syndication into even more homes as networks sought to balance out their new programming with tested programming from a previous era. Many cable channels rely exclusively on syndicated programming — first-run and off-network — to generate revenues from their audiences.
Channels need programs
There is simply not enough content being created on a frequent enough basis to meet television viewing habits. All channels, especially topical channels such as the Game Show Network, need syndication to fill out their programming schedules. Some networks are almost entirely made up of a mix of first-run and off-network syndicated programs (and licensed films, of course).
A second bite at the apple
For creators of original programming, syndication does more than simply help extend the financial life of a program, it helps to keep it in the cultural conversation. Shows like M.A.S.H. became beloved properties for whole new generations of viewers not alive or old enough to watch during its initial run. Similarly, shows that are syndicated before they reach the end of their initial run often see an increase in viewership for their new episodes, making syndication a very lucrative way to boost prime time viewership for a popular property.