Broadcast Syndication Then & Now: A Brief History

broadcast syndication

The proliferation of broadcast and streaming networks across the globe has intensified the call for programming content. Although it’s been around for decades, the use of broadcast syndication is decreasing as we move towards the content syndication shift of today’s world. Historically, broadcast syndication is selling a single TV show or radio program to multiple stations or platforms, content owners can reach and engage audiences across different markets and media.

Throughout the evolution of how content is shared, broadcast syndication has also evolved. Let’s explore the origins and development of syndication, from even the early days of radio to, of course, modern streaming. We’ll also examine the benefits and challenges for today’s content owners, producers, distributors, and consumers.

historical broadcast syndication presented by old radios and record players
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What Is Broadcast Syndication? The Basics and Benefits of Distributing Content

Syndication is one way broadcast networks can meet the increased need for programming content. Plus, content owners gain great returns on their projects.

Broadcast syndication is the sale or distribution of TV programming to various markets for non-network airings. Any content can be syndicated: movies, series, sports, talk shows, game shows, documentaries, and children’s entertainment.

This model differs from distribution via centralized networks, which only allows affiliated stations to broadcast programs. Instead, syndication gives broadcast networks access to programs created outside of the network—and to nationally known personalities—providing a wider selection of content to their audiences.

Benefits of Syndication

Syndication has significant benefits for companies in the broadcast industry. For instance, content producers and distributors can earn more revenue due to a broader audience base.

In addition, underperforming shows in a certain location can find renewed success when syndicated to a different audience. And broadcast networks that employ syndicated material have a larger library of programs to choose from and more opportunities to please their audience.

Types of Syndication

There are three common types of broadcast syndication:

  • First-Run Syndication: In this case, content owners sell first-run shows directly to affiliate stations and don’t air them on broadcast networks.
  • Off-Network Syndication: These shows are initially aired on a network, then sold to syndicated stations as reruns. In their first run, they typically can run up to four seasons before entering off-network syndication.
  • Public Broadcasting Syndication: Exclusive to public and community networks, public broadcast syndication airs only on publicly owned broadcast stations. Similar to a news agency model, competing entities share resources and air programs.

A Brief History of Syndication: From Radio to Streaming Networks

As broadcast technology and popular content consumption evolved, so did the practices and methods of broadcast syndication. Let’s explore the roadmap that led us to where we are today.

radio broadcast syndication
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Radio: The Golden Age of Syndicated Shows and Stars

Broadcast syndication began in the early 1900s, when news and music were distributed to radio stations nationwide on transcription disks. It reached its peak in the 1930s and 40s, when popular shows produced and distributed by independent companies gained nationwide recognition. Radio syndication enabled shows and stars such as The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and Superman to become national household names.

In the 1950s and 60s, radio syndication grew to find alternative sources of content as television networks took prime time hours. By the 70s and 80s, syndication became more profitable, with new technologies like satellite delivery and automation. This allowed syndicates to reach more stations and provide customized options. Syndicates sold advertising within their programs as a lucrative source of income.

The 90s and 2000s saw new obstacles and opportunities, with radio industry consolidation, deregulation, and fragmentation. Satellite radio, internet radio, and podcasts brought new competition with a wide range of niche choices. Additionally, syndicates adapted to changing consumer tastes and social issues, such as diversity, political polarization, and censorship.

Television: The Rise of Reruns, First-Run Syndication, and Cable Networks

In the 1940s and 50s, the introduction of television caused radio syndication to decline as popular shows and stars moved to the new medium. TV syndication initially followed the same radio model of distributing news and music programs to local stations.

In the late 50s and 60s, however, it grew with the emergence of off-network syndication (reruns of shows that aired on a network). This became a lucrative business for networks and independent producers alike.

The 70s and 80s saw an increase in first-run syndication (original shows produced for syndication). This offered producers and distributors more creative freedom and diversity. Popular first-run shows include Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Baywatch. Cable networks in the 1980s and 90s provided an additional outlet and audience for syndicated content.

Streaming Networks: The New Frontier of On-Demand Content and Global Reach

In the U.S. TV industry, reaching 100 episodes is a significant milestone for a series to qualify for syndicated reruns. This benchmark was important because it enabled a show to be broadcast repeatedly on weekdays for 20 weeks without duplicating any episodes. This advantage makes the series more appealing for syndication deals, as it allows for higher pricing per episode. However, with the rise of digital technology and the internet in the late 90s and 2000s, broadcast syndication encountered new opportunities and challenges posed by streaming networks, especially for independent content. These networks enable consumers to access movies, shows, documentaries, and originals on demand. There’s more choice, convenience, and customization than ever.

Streaming networks also increased the value of syndicated content by acquiring or producing exclusive rights to shows and movies, such as Amazon Prime Video’s deal with The Lord of the Rings. In addition, streaming networks widened the scope and reach of syndication through the production and distribution of original content that appeals to global audiences. Think Netflix’s Stranger Things, The Crown, and Money Heist.

While streaming networks are often seen as competitors to traditional television syndicators, they’re also valuable partners. They offer alternative audiences and create new revenue streams for video producers.

The Future of Syndication in a Changing Media Environment

The process of broadcast syndication is phasing out. We will start to hear less about broadcast syndication and more about content syndication as the hurdles attached to the old ways will no longer be the gatekeepers of the broadcast industry. Instead, the challenges will be delivering a content library to hundreds of digital streaming platforms simultaneously and cost-effectively.

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