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Not every TV series has a network home. Syndication is when a show, rather than being exclusive to a single Networks 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% of the population, and so they have to deal with a lot of independent affiliates to reach the other 61%. [1] 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. Many production companies have relied on this, selling their show to a network at a loss and making the money back through syndicated reruns. 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.
  • 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 [2], 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 offers more creative freedom and less censorship than airing a show on a network. Without a network to answer to, syndicated shows generally have Protection From Editors[3], 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: Warrior Princess 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 go through dozens, if not hundreds, of TV stations instead of just targeting the network.

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, judge shows, talk shows, or tabloid shows.

In The Fifties and The Sixties, 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.

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: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and two Star Trek shows) that came to personify what this 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 Generation 1, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Thundercats, Voltron, etc. 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, My Network TV has been attempting to move in this direction after failing to catch on as a traditional network, although its entire lineup consists of second-run programs (i.e. reruns) and movies now that WWE Smackdown! has moved to Sy Fy.

Notable shows that were in first-run syndication in the US:

  1. For example, KCUF, a non-O&O in the city of, oh, Hana, Montana, may carry the programming of NBC, but it is technically independent of the NBC structure, owned by another company or even by a single person or family.
  2. 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. Generally, however, they do so simply because they feel that the said network program simply isn't getting any good ratings, and that the syndicated, or even local, programming airing instead is more profitable.
  3. In terms of what they're allowed to do, not in terms of not being Edited for Syndication