Syndication; or television’s purgatory. It’s not necessarily where TV series go to die but where they linger between this life and the next, through endless reruns during the twilight hours, in multiple languages and sometimes even the most abstract of channels.
As in all things entertainment, the business side reigns to turn a successful formula profitable. Up until the latter half of the 00s, television’s main revenue was made out of ads played in real-time through commercial blocks, DVD/VHS of entire seasons and, of course, syndication. Entire libraries of TV series were sold across studios, networks and countries, trading distribution rights for hefty profits in order to squeeze out a series’ potential through reruns. Back in those crazy days where we only focused on one or two screens, the only way to catch up on your favorite show was through repetitions, and even these weren’t the best option as they were usually played over from the beginning, out of order, on a daily basis and they were mostly old episodes.
There was (and still exists, only more flexibly) the 88-episode golden rule: a television series’ distribution rights could only be sold through syndication if they had produced and aired at least 88 episodes over its run. This was the most challenging part from the 00’s onward, as the regular network TV season was shortened to 18-22 episodes, unlike TV’s phase II in which shows like Bevery HIlls, 90210, Melrose Place and Gilligan’s Island went on 30 to 36 episodes per season.
This only affected the large networks, of course, as they would hop from one affiliate (local stations) to the next and determining the lifespan of a series based on local and international appeal, as the latter would impact production costs through co-productions with international partners thus leveraging more episodes to meet the guidelines for syndication.
Fast-forward to this day and age, as with the rest of the entertainment landscape, the concept of syndication has evolved in to more commonly-known terms such as pay per view, video on demand and the most important of all: Netflix.
Netflix grew over the years, buying rights and building up a large library of TV shows and movies to catch up to the live counterparts, presenting itself as a real competitor through its original content programming. Netflix has made deals with the major broadcasting networks in order to sell, via monthly subscriptions, reruns of series, to be broadcasted over an impressive list of compatible devices and screens, with a huge amount of enhanced features blowing the syndication game out of the water.
TV networks now bet on online distribution platforms such as Netflix, striking million-dollar deals to make their libraries streamable online and increase their revenue margin in a way that could never be done through regular syndication. This, in turn, also increases their digital presence.
Netflix allows the viewer, now turned into user, to play, pause, stream and view content as they wish, when they want and on any device they prefer. They allow the user to skip through seasons, go back to certain episodes, view a show’s information and re-generate a sense of exploration that has been lost over the years for cancelled shows. Sometimes, it´s all about discovering a forgotten gem, while others is about sheer melancholy.
I´d like to turn to the similarities of both services, to confirm that Netflix has, in fact, turned into the TV recycling program of this generation, albeit with a more focused purpose.
Netflix and syndication are both paid: one through cable and normal charges (optional) and the other through a monthly service. The backlog of wither movies or series could vary depending on geographies, but it is clear that Netflix casts a wider net through its multiple streaming platforms and the ability to tune into whatever you´d like at any given moment. A premium fee is automatically attributed to Netflix, but in the end all TV-live viewing has a costs, whether it is as upfront as the online service or as hidden as buying the same piece of gum Monica is chewing on Friends.
Reruns, obviously, are the main attraction. Only in Netflix it isn´t so much about catching up with the old as re-discovering favorites. Finding those lost episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond or re-watching the entire Smallville series just for kicks. You are able to really immerse yourself in that specific show, if your heart so desires, as commercial interruptions are virtually non-existent and binge-watching allows you to consume as much as you could take in a single evening, which brings me to my next point:
Binge-watching; The art of watching a television show in an uninterrupted and continuous manner. A behavior that has been developed over the last decade mostly due to the virtual syndication. The frequency is completely up to the user, while on regular TV re-runs it could be dressed as a TV event in which back-to-back episodes are showed through marathons, as opposed to Netflix´s more liberal all-you-can-eat model. As I mentioned earlier, the online platform offers more flexibility and enhancements, it is streamlined thanks to a UI and incredible user experience, but this trend has roots that date back to the days of VCR-ing series and catching up on continuous episodes aired during the holidays.
The revival. I believe both of the platforms, in one way or another, restore TV shows to a former glory. As time passes it is easier to see certain flaws that are made more evident as the user is allowed to focus in on them (Charmed´s magic spells, anyone?). At the same time, we see past those flaws in an instance of complete and hypnotized fandom. I think this point is key with gone-too-soon shows, such as Veronica Mars or Nikita. It´s a decentralized way of watching TV, if you will, as we are not overrun by buzz and on-going trends, the viewer is able to take a stepback from all the new, flashy series and focus on what it wants.
A proper goodbye. This last point is the most important one, and is where Netflix completely changes the television game for our generation: a true ending to a story. There is an excellent article detailing the billion-deal struck by the CW and Netflix (Here) in which one of the conditions to stream it´s backlog is to have shows with proper endings. You would not walk out of a movie early, or even stop watching a TV series in the middle of a season. Viewers turn to fans, fans turn into cults that follow a series over its entire span, that means years of watching, years of devotion and attachment, more so than with any other form of art. Structure is the base for all visual entertainment and, as such, we are trained to understand a narrative that contains a beginning, middle and end. Both Netflix and the syndication system are factors that could benefit a TV show to gain a proper ending, as syndication has a leg in the international business and it would be an influence when selling content overseas.
In the end we crave entertainment in any form, and this time of television moneyball isn´t just for the business, corporate-side of things, as shows potentially live on forever. Time will tell how viewers interact and consume their content, as original programming through online services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix bring more to the table than ever before, as the entertainment distribution system gets crowded, the viewer is, in turn, awarded with virtually endless possibilities to keep Television beating and alive.