When Michael Moore of Roger & Me fame debuted his new magazine show TV Nation on NBC last summer, it was cause for independent videomakers everywhere to sit up and take notice.

Why? Because it reminded us that there are commercial broadcast opportunities out there for independents. With 500 or 1000 channels just over the horizon, those opportunities are expanding at light speed.

If you’ve got a good show, you can get it on the air–if you know where to look. Moore aside, the best commercial opportunities for independents today are not with the major networks, but with low-power broadcasters and the many smaller and emerging cable networks.

But before you load up the Yugo with cassettes and sally forth, there are a few things you should know.

Low Power Television

Low-power television, or LPTV, offers one of your best opportunities to break into the commercial world. LPTV refers to a relatively new category of broadcasters recently created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). While high-power TV stations have huge antennae and enough power to transmit many miles (and enough money to pay the hefty licensing fees), LPTV stations have smaller antennae, less expensive gear and transmit within a much more limited geographic area.

The coverage area of a typical LPTV station, depending on local geographical impediments, is from five to 20 miles. Most LPTV stations can comfortably cover most cities; many reach entire counties. But limited geography doesn’t necessarily mean fewer viewers. WGOT, a low-power station broadcasting from Manchester, NH, along the Massachusetts border, reaches the entire city of Boston, home to millions of potential viewers.

There are currently over 1,500 low-power stations licensed by the FCC, with nearly twice that many applications for new licenses pending.

“There are more low-power stations out there right now than high-power stations,” says LPTV industry consultant John Kompas. “And the number keeps growing.”

Kompas is president of KB Limited, a Milwaukee-based LPTV information and consulting firm. The company also publishes the industry newsletter, Community Television Business. Kompas, who has been working in the LPTV industry since 1981, also co-founded the Community Broadcasters Association, a trade association for low-power television.

“LPTV is an emerging industry run by small businessmen who are much easier to deal with and reach,” says Kompas. “There’s an opportunity here to get independent productions aired in a true commercial environment, rather than just some public access channel that very few people watch.”

Kompas says there is no typical LPTV format; their missions vary widely, from spreading the gospel to delivering off-campus educational programming. But, he says, LPTV managers who think of their operations as community-based stations and use their programming to fill uniquely local needs are not uncommon.

That, he says, is where the opportunities for independent videomakers lie.

“If you want to do a weekly show,” he says, “about, say, what’s going on in your city, you’ve got a good chance of selling that show to a low-power station, where a high-power station wouldn’t even let you in the door. Remember: LPTV stations are usually unaffiliated [not receiving programming from the major networks] and they’re looking for programming they can afford. They have to fill 24 hours a day, and that’s a lot of time.”

One independent producer Kompas points to recognized a local need and filled it, creating in the process a successful program that aired on a local LPTV station. Wakishaw County, just outside Milwaukee, is horse country, home to at least 60 busy stables. That fact led the producers of Horse Country Wakishaw to develop an eight-part series featuring vignettes of local stables.

“The producer went to the various stables and got them to buy the vignettes, which he then weaved into a program,” Kompas explains. “The local LPTV station was glad to get the show.”

Syndication

Focusing on the programming needs of local viewers is a good way to interest LPTV stations in your show. But if the appeal of your idea is broad enough, it need not limit your commercial distribution potential.

“Another advantage of low-power stations,” says Elliot Eki, “is that so many of them are now on cable systems. It’s a great way to get your show into a number of markets with a single sale.”

Eki is director of syndication for Peregrin Communications in Beaverton, Oregon. Peregrin produces and distributes Fishing the West, a highly successful niche market show. On the air since 1983, the show’s title is something of a misnomer, since it is currently seen across the United States and in 13 foreign countries.

Fishing the West is a syndicated show; sold on a station-by-station basis, it’s not affiliated with a major network. The networks buy shows from producers and then place them on their affiliated stations in return for commercial time, which they then sell to national advertisers. A syndicator does essentially the same thing, without the network affiliation.

Syndicators compete directly with the networks for valuable broadcast time. Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues–all are successful syndicated shows with large audiences.

“Syndication is basically a way of establishing an ad hoc network,” says Tim Duncan, executive director of the Advertisers Syndicated Television Association. “It does what a network does, but without that middle man.”

While the idea of joining forces in a syndicate for greater distribution strength is nothing new to, say, newspapers, it is a relatively innovative concept for TV. Nowadays it’s big business. Total syndication revenues for next year should top $1.8 billion; 15 years ago, that number was zero.

A potentially invaluable vehicle for distributing your show nationally, syndication is worth exploring. Syndicators are much more approachable than the networks; they’re also accustomed to dealing with a wide variety of independent producers.

A useful list of syndicators is available from the National Association of Television Programming Executives (see sidebar).

Self-Syndication

“For a show to succeed in syndication,” Duncan explains, “a syndicator has to persuade 200-odd TV station general managers that this is a show that their audience is going to adore.”

In other words, the syndicator has to believe in your show nearly as much as you do. Unfortunately, says Peregrin’s Eki, it doesn’t always work that way.

“A lot of these guys who are brokering programs might not be pushing yours as hard as you’d like them to,” Eki says. “It’s a preference type of deal. Maybe they like bowling better than fishing, so they push that instead. That’s something we don’t have to deal with here.”

Peregrin’s Fishing the West is one of the few really successful self-syndicated programs on the air today. Rather than becoming a part of a syndicate that represents a number of different shows, the producers of a self-syndicated show send their own representatives to TV stations to sell their programming.

“We know what our product is,” explains Eki, “so we’re able to explain it better. We are the people who really want to do something with this show. Who better to sell it?”

Hosted by the show’s originator and producer Larry Schoenborn and master fisherman Jeff Boyer, Fishing the West currently airs regularly in around 130 markets.

Eki says his sales strategy is a simple one: “I have a little cubby hole up here and map and I just start looking around to see where we’d like to have our show next. Then I get on the phone, get a hold of the programming exec, tell them what we have, what type of show it is and we go from there.”

In addition to LPTV stations, he sometimes approaches network affiliates. These affiliates also have time to fill outside their prime-time slots; sometimes they’re interested in buying niche programming. The smaller market affiliates in particular can be very approachable.

“The whole process is a little bit like fishing,” Eki says. “But your ‘bait’ has to be a high-quality production. Viewers are so sophisticated in their visual demands, they know a hell of a lot about good video and they know good camera work–and bad!”

Recently, Peregrin added a new show to its roster. Currently seen on 26 stations, Northwest Hunter went on the air in July.

Cable Opportunities

The future of the cable TV industry is uncertain in all but one aspect: it’s going to continue to grow. Advanced communication technology will soon bring 500 channels and more into subscribers homes, and along with them a tremendous need for programming.

In this new environment, there should be plenty of room for independent videomakers with quality programming. Still, large, established cable networks, such as The Discovery Channel or ESPN, will be tough nuts for low-budget independents to crack. Your best bet: start with the smaller, emerging cable networks.

“The smaller cable networks are very approachable,” says Eki. “Especially if you have a show that works with their overall theme, but adds something they didn’t have before.”

Eki says his company’s fishing show has been airing on Prime Ticket, the Los Angeles-based cable sports network, for several years. Prime Ticket reportedly has over 4 million subscribers in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona, and will soon expand to Hawaii.

“It’s sports programming,” Eki explains, “and fishing is definitely a sport. So we fit right in with their existing programming, while bringing in something a little different, too. It’s also an outdoor activity, it’s done in a nature and it’s a family kind of thing. There are really a number of niches out there where we could fit in very well.”

The Technology Information Network, Extreme Sports, The Knitting Network, another Sci-Fi Channel: all are among the approximately 150 new cable networks set to launch in the near future. Many will require 24 hours a day of programming.

One way to determine whether a given cable network would bother to give you the time of day, says Eki, is to find out how many subscribers it has. A small network struggling to acquire some inexpensive programming is much more open to independent producers.

Channel America, Mainstreet TV and American Independent Network are three very small, competing cable networks with 24 hours a day to fill and reputations for accessibility to independent producers.

Making the Deal

Emerging cable networks are also more flexible about payment options–as you should be. Whether you’re sitting down to negotiate with a LPTV station program manager or an emerging cable network operator, you should be aware of three basic payment arrangements.

Cash. A cash deal is the simplest and most common payment option. You grant the station or network the right to run your show for a certain period of time; they hand you a check, a so-called licensing fee.

Barter. Trading programs for commercial time instead of cash is increasingly common in commercial broadcasting today. Called advertiser-supported or barter, the system involves a simple trade: the station gives up commercial time for the use of a TV program and no cash changes hands. The producer or syndicator then has the right to sell advertising on that time. According to Duncan, stations began bartering for shows in earnest around 1980, when competition began driving up program prices.

“The notion of a barter,” Duncan says, “really arose only recently as stations strapped for cash found they didn’t have the money to pay for the programming they needed. Giving up commercial time added an extra wrinkle to the deal.”

The system is attractive to stations interested in reducing financial risk, and is therefore a very useful bargaining tool for independent producers of unproven shows.

“The producers,” explains Kompas, “go to station and say, ‘I’ll give you the program, plus half the spots–and there’s no money exchanged.’ The local guy loves it! He pays no fee and he gets to sell commercial time. If the show is good, everybody wins.”

If a show is very successful, it’s rarely a 50-50 deal. In the case of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, the producers can demand nearly all of the commercial time, leaving the carrier with only one spot. But the carrier accepts this deal because of lead-ins, which help the carrier keep viewers tuned in before and after the show.

On cable, any network with less than 15 million subscribers is a likely candidate for a barter deal. With broadcasters, it’s more a function of their reach and population.

Barter plus cash. This deal is some combination of the two deals above. Depending on the success of the show, producers might want a licensing fee and a chance to sell the advertising. Any deal which involves a barter is almost a joint venture: as ratings and advertiser response goes up, everybody makes more money.

Professionalism

Professionalism often makes the difference between independent producers who succeed in selling their programming and those who do not.

“You absolutely must present yourself as a professional,” says Kompas, “even when you are approaching the small, local stations. If you come off as an amateur, the station operators are going to recognize you as an amateur and have nothing to do with you. Remember, even the little guys are dealing with the Paramounts and the Foxes of this industry. They don’t want to deal with someone who is any less professional than they would be.”

In other words, while your show has to be good, you also have to present an image that gives the station managers confidence in you personally. You have to come off like a pro.

How do you do that when, in fact, you aren’t playing at that level just yet? Simple: you immerse yourself in the commercial broadcasting business. You read everything there is to read about commercial TV. You study reports and subscribe to industry newsletters to keep informed and pick up the jargon. You attend trade shows and mingle with industry pros, asking questions and rubbing up against them until some of whatever it is we’re talking about here finally rubs off.

And don’t worry, says Kompas, it will: “It’s a matter of understanding some of the jargon, being able to speak the language, knowing the going rates for things, even who’s who in the industry. You need to have that to be recognized as part of the industry.”

Attending industry trade shows can be invaluable to new producers trying to get a grip on the business of commercial broadcasting. At these events, programmers set up booths and broadcasters search for programming. Once your show is together, you can set up your own booth and pitch your show to likely syndicators.

But you don’t have to be an exhibitor to get information and make contacts at these shows. You can just show up, look around, collect literature, attend a few seminars and shake a few hands. However you manage to make your connection, remember: in the future, TV is going to be a very different animal from what we see today. With more and more choices and increasingly sophisticated technologies at their fingertips, viewers will turn to their TV sets for more than just entertainment. As they begin to interact with this medium in new and unpredictable ways, relevancy will become a driving force.

Creating unique programming for specific viewers–programming relevant to their lives–is one thing small, independent producers do better than the big guys. Independent videomakers who do their homework, find local needs and fill them with quality programming will always have a place in commercial broadcasting.

John K. Waters is a free-lance editor and script writer.

(SIDEBAR #1)
Map Out Your Show

When you sit down to plan your show, remember: your job isn’t to invent the wheel, but to reinvent it. Today’s viewers are very savvy. After thousands and thousands of hours of watching TV, they have certain expectations of what a show ought to be; it’s up to you to meet those expectations if you want commercial broadcasters to take you seriously.

One approach is to create a “map” of an existing show and use it to construct your own. Pick a show that’s similar to what you have in mind–a talk show, magazine show, sitcom, reality-based–whatever you have in mind. Each type will have a certain style and will use certain devices to give shape to the content. Is there an opening theme song? How long does it run? Does it open with an anchor or host? How long before the first commercial? Is there a “bumper,” announcing “We’ll be right back” or “Welcome back”? Do the bumpers mention the sponsors?

You can also pick up insights on techniques that fit the style you’re shooting for. Are there many close-ups? How is the pacing? How does the show use music? Voice overs? Sound effects? Originality is important, but you’re probably better off with original content than with an original format. In TV, as in most commercial enterprises, people tend to buy what they know.

(SIDEBAR #2)
The 13-Week Package

What could be more intimidating than the thought of producing a weekly TV show? The very thought of it sends shivers up the spines of the most seasoned producers. But you can’t walk into program directors’ offices with only one show. One show is not even worth their time to sit down and talk to you about it.

It has to do with the nature of TV programming. Unlike magazines, say, which we can pick up at the local newsstand almost any time, we watch TV programming at regular, predictable intervals. That’s how we “get” TV.

The smallest unit of measure in the commercial broadcasting world is 13 weeks (of programming). Anything less just does not compute. You can produce 13 weeks and then start your repeats, or you can produce two 13-week batches and then repeat for two seasons. You can take a year to produce the 13 weeks of programming, but without at least that many shows, you’re not a player in the commercial marketplace. You need to develop a 13-week package to show program directors.

SIDEBAR #3)
For Further Inquiry

The more you know about commercial broadcasting, the better your chances of success when you present your show to potential buyers. Here are some additional resources you can use to gain the knowledge you need:

  • Advertisers Syndicated Television Association (ASTA). Provides nuts-and-bolts information about syndication. (212) 245-0840.
  • National Association of Television Programming Executives. Provides a comprehensive list of syndicators. (310) 453-4440.
  • National Academy of Cable Programmers. Provides a directory of cable networks. Also a Producer’s Sourcebook, which explains who to talk to and how to submit. (202) 775-3611.
  • National Cable Television Association. Sponsors important industry trade show. A self-addressed, stamped envelope will get you a a list of emerging cable networks. (202) 775-3685.
  • The Business of Television, by Howard J. Blumenthal and Oliver R. Goodenough. An invaluable book about the industry. Available at bookstores and libraries.
  • BIB Television Programmers’ Source Book. Lists all current programs on TV or on the market. (212) 620-7330.

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