Not every TV series has a network home. Syndication is when a show, rather than being exclusive to a single network and shown at a particular time, is sold to individual stations for them to do with as they wish. Syndication is primarily (although not entirely) an American trope, thanks to the way that television is run in the United States: television networks are not allowed to have their owned-and-operated (or O&O) stations reach more than 39%note of the population, and so they have to deal with a lot of independent affiliates to reach the other 61%. note These affiliates are able to air whatever they want in times when they're not showing network programming, without asking the network or the other affiliates. In addition, there exist many TV stations that aren't affiliates of any network, and must rely on outside programming in order to fill their schedule with more than just infomercials and poorly-made community access shows. Finally, even O&Os usually have some hours left over to fill with non-network programming, and as the network's flagship stations, they don't want to get caught showing dead air or crappy, locally-produced shows.
There are multiple types of syndicated programming:
- First-Run Syndication is when each episode of a show is broadcast in syndication first. Most of this page is about this.
- Second-run syndication, or off-network syndication, is when a show that has already run on a network has reruns aired in syndication.
- International syndication is when a show that's airing in one country is shopped around to networks in another. Usually, it's American shows that get exported, but there are examples of the reverse happening (some of which are detailed below). Before the rise of specialty cable networks like BBC America, syndication was often the only way (other than the famously Anglophilic PBS) for a foreign series to get airtime in the US, as the American broadcast networks tend to favor American-made programs and have pockets deep enough to fund an entire season's schedule of made-in-America shows. Every show that has aired in multiple countries has undergone some form of this.
- Public broadcasting syndication is a special type of syndication reserved for public and community TV stations (such as PBS affiliates).
Usually, when syndicating a show, the production or distribution company attempts to distribute it to only one station in each media market. There is a logic to this: if multiple stations air a show, they will split the ratings and collect little in advertising revenue (some may cancel it if ratings get too low), while if one station has exclusive rights to a syndicated show, they will have much higher ratings for it and be able to charge much higher rates to advertisers. Therefore, it's in every station's best interest to get exclusive broadcast rights, and the ensuing competition allows the distributor to charge more for syndication.
There are some key differences between syndication and airing on a network. A network show is usually guaranteed to air on all the network's affiliates. There are, however, cases where network affiliates have refused to air a network show. Sometimes, this is due to concerns about offensive content, or pressure from local Moral Guardians, though it's usually because they feel that the network program simply isn't getting any good ratings, and that syndicated, or even local, programming airing instead is more profitable. An example of this would be when many NBC stations considered pulling The Jay Leno Show when its poor ratings started dragging down their nightly newscasts. It goes without saying that this tends to be a very bad omen for a network show's future. Network television also generally has the schedule consistent at the same time each week (although you never know sometimes). Syndicated shows, meanwhile, are scheduled by each individual station as they wish. Usually, they follow a pattern when it comes to scheduling, but time slot shifts are common, and shows may be cut down to make room for more commercials.
Syndication can be done on a "cash" or "barter" basis. When done on a "cash" basis, the airing station pays for the rights to the show, owns all the airtime, and controls which episodes are shown. On a "barter" basis, the episode is given to the station for free in exchange for controlling a portion of the airtime; barter contracts often control which episodes are aired as well (newer episodes are thought to draw better ratings, so the studio is ostensibly protecting its investment in the airtime by restricting which episodes are aired). On either basis, the episode may be cut or compressed to allow for more commercials; this frequently occurs at the "bumper" points.
Syndication offers more creative freedom and less censorship than airing a show on a network. Without a network to answer to, syndicated shows have a general sense of Protection from Editors in the same sense of independent films having more freedom from studio interference, not in terms of not being Edited for Syndication, making the format appealing for the types of shows that usually wouldn't last long on a network (Speculative Fiction and action-heavy shows in particular seem to be attracted to syndication). In addition, you don't have to deal with an organized Standards and Practices department, as most individual stations don't have such a thing. (Could Baywatch have survived more than a few seasons of NBC's Media Watchdogs, or could Xena have gotten away with all of its Les Yay?) The only censorship you face is from the FCC, and any campaign by Moral Guardians to get your show yanked from the air or bowdlerised would have to not only influence dozens, if not hundreds, of TV stations instead of just targeting the network, but would have to defame the show so badly that another station isn't interested in picking it up instead.
So if syndication is so great, then why do so many TV producers go to the networks? Because syndication is the hard way to keep a show running. Contracts have to be negotiated with each TV station, instead of a single network. And as stated above, there's no telling when they're going to schedule your show, when they're going to pre-empt it for local sports or Yet Another Baby Panda, or how much they're going to cut in order to run commercials. Syndicated shows also don't have the luxury of the networks' advertising departments, which means that the producers carry a much greater burden for promoting their shows. Finally, if a show runs short of cash, it can't expect a network to come and save them — the producers must raise the show's syndication rates (which runs the risk of pissing off TV stations) or ask the fans for donations. Furthermore, the increased popularity of cable channels has made them an attractive area for series that previously might have gone into syndication instead, which is why most syndicated programming these days are either game shows, court shows, talk shows, or newsmagazines.
In The '50s and The '60s, syndication was primarily a dumping ground for network reruns (a practice invented by none other than Desi Arnaz with I Love Lucy), with only a few breakout original shows (such as The Adventures of Superman and Mister Ed) that were mostly produced by Ziv Television Programs. This changed in the late '60s, when the FCC started restricting what TV stations could show in the 7-8 PM "early fringe" hour just before Prime Time (among other things, reruns were out) in the hopes that it would encourage the development of more local programming. What it caused instead was the rise of original syndicated programming in that coveted hour, particularly game shows (some of which made the jump to Prime Time), talk shows, TV news magazines, and variety shows. A lot of British and Canadian imports, such as UFO, Space: 1999 and The Starlost, also got American distribution through syndication. Finally, first-run syndication became an escape hatch for TV shows that got the axe from the networks.
Wrestling was often aired in syndication, and very early on. FCC regulations in the pre-Reagan years required a certain amount of local content on any "independent" station, and wrestling not only fit the bill, but generated ratings like crazy, and was cheap to boot. Most local territories would either offer the tape for free to the station or even pay a programming fee, and insert advertisements for their revenue-generating live events. When the Reagan administration deregulated the FCC, a regional wrestling promoter by the name of Vincent Kennedy McMahon was able to pay stations across the country to put his show on the air instead of his competitors', creating a national empire. Until the rise of the Monday Night Wars and the heavier emphasis on pay-per-view, syndicated programming was the "A-show" for WWE, as it sold the house show lineups while the cable shows established the characters. McMahon's national competitors would follow his formula, and many now-defunct wrestling groups attempted to start with a syndication package.
The mid-late '80s and the '90s saw the rise of original, made-for-syndication American scripted series. Much of the live-action stuff consisted of Science Fiction, fantasy and horror shows (including Hercules, Xena and two Star Trek shows) that came to personify what This Very Wiki once called the "'90s adventure show" (until that trope got too broad). The list of syndicated animated shows from this time, meanwhile, reads like a who's who of classic '80s cartoons: The Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983), G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Thunder Cats, Voltron, etc.; not surprisingly, these cartoons tended to be heavily Merchandise-Driven. PTEN and the Action Pack were both syndication packages that emerged in the '90s, attempting to bridge the gap between "syndication" and "network" by offering a group of shows to channels for them to schedule as they see fit. Neither package lasted very long, although the Action Pack was slightly more successful. More recently, MyNetworkTV has been attempting to move in this direction after failing to catch on as a traditional network, although its entire lineup has consisted of second-run programs (i.e. reruns) and movies since WWE SmackDown moved to Syfy (and later USA Network, where it currently lives).
Originally, syndicated programs were generally "bicycled", meaning that a station would receive a master copy of that week's show, air it, then send that tape to the next station. Shows that were distributed in this manner tended to air well out of production order, including programs that distributed by five-show weeks. September 1984 introduced the current "satellite" method of syndication, whereby the affiliates receive the episodes at the same time in a specific order determined by the production company...which sometimes ends up being out-of-order anyway (even if, in the case of game shows, they use returning champions or change their format several times in a season.
When it comes to Second-Run Syndication, a similar deal has to be managed in that the rights to air the show are picked up by a particular channel or network. Indeed, several channels boast 75% or more second-run syndication programming with news, sports coverage, infomercials and low-key original shows filling in the rest of the air time. Cable and Satellite channels have even been able to specialize in entirely recycled shows, many of which are actually split off from the parent channel (such as Teen Nick and Toon Disney). Many of these channels originated to specialized programming blocks on a network channel that was dedicated to showing "old school" tv shows.
Many production companies have actually banked off second-run syndication deals, selling their show to a network at a loss and making the money back through selling airing rights to other networks and local channels. It's often said in the American television industry that second-run syndication is where the real money is for TV producers, especially in the case of sitcoms. These deals are the reasoning behind a 65-Episode Cartoon and the excitement over a 100 episode Milestone Celebration, as those are considered the minimum requirements to be acceptable as a syndicated show (Arrested Development actually surprised many by getting some syndication deals as, being an Acclaimed Flop, it fell way short of the normal count at 53 episodes before the revival).