The Cultural and Financial Implications of Syndication -- for actors, television audiences, and the industry as a whole
The most recent hit television show to come to an end was the popular NBC sitcom "Friends." The show was one of the last mainstays of NBC's long-standing but faltering 'Must See TV' Thursday lineup. This lineup used to include "Seinfield" but has now dwindled to a faltering "ER" and little else, a show that is also syndicated and likely to end soon, given its declining number of viewers. What was so interesting, however, in terms of the death of "Friends" as a cultural mainstay, was not the loss of this rather pedestrian sitcom, but the fact that even more than the content of the final episode, the question in the media was often -- how much would the actors receive for their performance in the show, and how much was the undisclosed amount they would receive when all of the episodes entered syndication. The show's presence, through syndication, had become so ubiquitous, that there were more questions about the revenue of the actors than of the show's termination itself. After all, no one could miss "Friends" -- it would still be on, in recycled form, night after night.
Friends" of course has been in syndication in its older episodes on many channels, as are "Fraiser" and "ER" and "Will and Grace" as well as many long-defunct sitcoms, including the now-venerable "Seinfield" as well as older shows like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." What is so strange about the phenomenon of syndication, however, is that shows that existed long before one was born now become part of one's cultural fabric and frame of reference, particularly if one has access to such cable networks as "TV Land" and "Nick (elodeon) at Nite." Also, even sitcoms one watches in real time, become disassociated from their linear narrative progression, as on any night a fan of "Friends" could see Rachel waiting on tables at the Second Cup, see Chandler and Monica newly married on another network, and then see the final season -- all in the same evening, on different channels and different screens, or perhaps, one after the other, recorded on one's VCR or TiVo. Syndication becomes a kind of parallel with the VCR/TiVo generation, where there are no more cultural focuses, only choices for individual viewers when and if to see a show, when that viewer chooses to do so. "Don't tell me how it ends, I have it recorded," could be the most phrase of the past and present generation of viewers, rather than, "did you see it last night? Did you like it"?
Although media consumption has become socially disconnected, the cultural interest in the media still remains constant -- how so and why, one might ask? One possible answer is the continued popularization of such shows as "Friends" not in and of themselves, but through the sustaining presence of the cultural, media industry, as exemplified in such magazines as Entertainment Weekly and "Entertainment Tonight." These shows make the star's lives and salaries a kind of spectacle in and of themselves, often eclipsing the actual shows that give actors a stable fan base.
Year after year, one of the most hotly debated question about "Friends" has been the suspense regarding the salaries of the "Friends" actors. The question of Ross and Rachel pales in rather weary comparison. Perhaps reality TV was the only logical result, as the reality of the star's lives seemed far more exciting than the constructed romance of the two main protagonists of the show. Syndication only served to further dilute the interest in the real content of the love lives of these characters -- it was no mystery the two would remain together, although the amount of money the stars receive from syndication of the show remains mysterious.
Firstly, in technical and legal terms, what exactly is syndication? If a show has produced more than a hundred episodes then it can go into syndication. The blurring of television entertainment news and the actual content of fictional programming has been further achieved as networks frequently identify a show's hundredth anniversary episode in the media it directs towards the public as well as those within the industry as a landmark event. Before, the public was likely to be unaware of the status of this landmark -- now, given the glut of consumption of media outlays, however, many viewers know why the hundredth episode is such an exciting event for a hit, as it means that the show, its producers and actors, can benefit enormously from the additional benefit of syndication that the 100th episode provides. ("100 episodes," 2004)
The hundredth episode usually correlates to the fifth season of most television shows. Often, many insiders say this is when popular television shows, in industry parlance "jump the shark" (referring to a popularly and critically panned 'Happy Days' episode) or become stale and are forced to recycle material or generate improbable story lines. ("100 episodes," 2004) However, with the lucrative nature of syndication, rather than smothering further production in today's market, the entrance of a show into the golden fifth season or hundred episode mark tends only to spur production.
Soberly, one may reflect that the grand question that was to be the end-all, be-all question of the "Friends" finale, namely if Ross and Rachel would pair off together, was in fact the very question the episode had been asking year after year, for many number of years, recycling the same question ad infinitum for the purposes, not of art, but of production -- and not simply production 'in time' in a linear sense of story, but in terms of generating more and more episodes as commodities, to be sold into the syndication market. When one sees the same episodes over and over again, it hardly matters if storylines repeat or overlap.
All of this makes syndication sound like a synonym for evil, and the death of televised creativity. But simply put, "syndication" merely means "to make material and also to make televisied content "available to a range of outlets simultaneously." ("Syndication," 2004) On television, this means to "supply programs to affiliate stations" whereby "through the use of both network and syndication" stations can obtain programing without producing in-house." ("TV Syndication," 2004) Syndication differs from network affiliation in that the "contracts are limited to a specific set of programs, and the station typically get a right to freely schedule the program within certain conditions such as up to three times within a two-year period." In syndication, a program typically is "exchanged with either money, airtime, or the combination of both. The trade of program with airtime, which is used for advertisements, is called barter within the industry." (TV Syndication," 2004)
Syndication can hardly be thorughout panned, as it used to considerably benefit independent local television stations. Unforunately, now with the loosening of FCC regulations and the creation of three additional TV networks, particularly Fox, most of these independents have become unprofitable and ceased operation, even with the benefits of syndication.
Syndication -- no longer the major network profiteer
Friends" has been in syndication for so long, however, that NBC has sought other ways to diversify the "Friends" empire now and into the future. One popular and surprising way this has been done is through the DVD market, which gives "Friends" fans additional data regarding the production and credits of the crew, actors, and writers apart from the actual narrative storyline or arc of the series. However, one of the attractions for networks is that because of the relative newness of the medium, the rights to DVDs are not in most long-standing actor's or writer's contracts and now, "in most cases actors and writers entitled to a payment from reruns of the show get little or nothing from a DVD sale," although says one insider, he believes that "in the future, it'll be part of union contracts, but for the most part it's not yet.'" (Isidore, 2004)
The reason for "Friends" quick turnaround on DVD and the relatively low price for the "Friends" finale on DVD was first that the low price could allow it to be an impulse buy and a record setter in terms of unit sales, even if it did not set revenue records. Another reason was because of the enormous cost in renewing the show year after year. (Isidore, 2004) The twenty-two million dollar deal that resulted in the last season of "Friends" cost NBC seven million per episode," part of which was devoted to paying "each of the six cast members one million per show, or twenty-two million a season," in addition to an undisclosed portion of the syndication profits. (CNN, 2002)
Syndication -- not all bad
The sitcom heroes and heroines of "Friends," however, would contend that, as actors, their future careers remain unstable. No actor can be certain of his or her future, even after starring in a long-standing syndicated hit…