Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Golden Age of Sydication

WB and UPN are merging which will probably leave a lot of stations without programming. This may create a new market for syndication. It's worth looking back at the last time this happened.

For decades cities were limited by the FCC and the channel selector of the TV. Channels 2-13 had separate clicks on the main VHF dial. For channels above that, you set the main dial to UHF and tried to find the channel on a second dial. It was difficult and you needed a different antenna to get acceptable reception.

The VHF stations were dominated by the big three networks - ABC, CBS and NBC. UHF was usually a weak PBS station. The few independent stations showed reruns of old shows from the big three and British TV, talk shows, and inexpensive productions such as Solid Gold (top music countdown with scantily clad dancers).

A very few independent shows were produced such as Space 1999. Hour-long shows seldom lasted more than a season and never more than two seasons. The main exception was the Muppet Show.

In the 1980s, the FCC loosened up restrictions on how close stations could be to each other and how many stations a metropolitan area could have. This created a large number of independent stations.

The first wave of independents was signed up for the fledgling FOX network. FOX built up its programming a bit at a time starting with a show about a werewolf then expanding into Sunday night and adding more nights over a few years.

This left a lot of prime time hours to fill.

At the same time the success of the Star Trek movies convinced Paramont to bring the show back. Gene Rodenbury agreed but only if he was free of network restrictions. Star Trek the Next Generation was born as a syndicated show proving that an independent production could match the production values of network TV.

This was only the beginning. As FOX expanded its programming the FCC allowed a second wave of independent stations, all looking for original programming.

This is what I refer to as the golden age of syndication. Hours of new programming was produced each week. Most of it was fantasy/science fiction based. Costs were cut by using unknown actors, shooting on location instead of building sets, and by shooting in other countries. Still, the results were entertaining and sometime exceeded anything seen on network TV. I don't remember any unwatchable shows among them.

The very best were Star Trek and Babylon 5. They boasted production values and special effects comparable to feature films and intelligent writing. These were shows that made you think.

Other shows like Highlander (immortals who fought each other with swords) and Forever Night (a vampire detective) were entertaining action shows.

Then there was Hercules and Xena. Even though some of the plots were pretty serious, the shows were campy fun and very popular.

Then Paramont and Warner started their own networks, sucking up the independent stations. Without prime time slots to fill, stations were not able to pay as much for syndicated shows. At the same time cable stations started producing their own original content, often aimed at the same fantasy/sci-fi market.

The powerhouse syndicated shows ran down and ended. No new ones took their place. The age of syndication ended.

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