TO: WENDY MC MAHON, PRESIDENT AND CO-HEAD, CBS NEWS AND STATIONS
CC: JOHN BUDKINS, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, PROGRAMMING AND SCHEDULING
FR: STEVE LEBLANG, MEDIA CONSULTANT
RE: JEOPARDY!/WHEEL NEGOTIATIONS
Belated congratulations on your recent appointment to these two crucial positions. I am writing you to help you justify what I believe could be the most significant investment you can make in the future of not only your core businesses but the entire ViacomCBS company.
As was reported in this morning’s Los Angeles Times by Stephen Battaglio, your sister division CBS Media Ventures is soliciting bids for both JEOPARDY! and WHEEL OF FORTUNE effective September 2023. As you undoubtedly know from your prior position as head of those shows’ top market homes on the ABC owned-and-operated stations, they are both high-rated, highly advertiser-friendly franchises with strong common audience with the local news operations that drive your revenue targets, contribute directly to the corporate bottom line and clearly benefitted you financially.
No doubt ViacomCBS took notice and considered you an invaluable asset with demonstrable talent and character central to their rebuilding of their scandal-impacted stations and news divisions. JEOPARDY! in particular has had its own scandals this year, having survived death, misoygny and questionable corporate decisions from its own corporate management and is nevertheless closing 2021 as one of the highest-rated programs in all linear television.
Battaglio speculates that Disney is motivated to attempt to renew these shows and offers that there may be additional opportunities for their exposure via Hulu or other Disney streaming entities. He also accurately recaps that the FOX-owned stations are poised to put in a lucrative bid that may even top the aggressive one they offered during the last renewal cycle. Certainly, FOX’s duopolies could allow the shows to have increased ratings and justification for their carriage on cable, satellite and VMVPDs.
But we both know that Disney’s disarray in its own streaming strategy–Hulu itself is in a questionable position–and FOX’s limited ability to maximize its value beyond the stations work against them. You find yourself in a very strong negotiating position, plus you uniquely have the opportunity to work WITH the distributor, your current corporate cousin, and can offer a panopoly of benefits that no competitor can.
- You could run the shows as lead-ins to your early news on the CBS-branded stations you manage, effectively replacing JUDGE JUDY reruns that you have kept on your air by default this year and negating the massive challenge to nurture a new program (such as DREW BARRYMORE) or expand to still more local news to fill the void. There have been far more DREWS than there have been KELLY CLARKSONS. And certainly none with four decades of proven success such as JEOPARDY!/WHEEL.
- You could also run these shows in prime access (and possibly even late prime time as well) on your duopoly stations. They would maintain their current time slots, aggregate their local market ratings (and your ability to sell them), and enhance your position in retransmission negotiations with these stations. Re the multiple runs, anyone who claims you can’t triple-run a show (particularly if one of the runs is from a prior year) clearly hasn’t followed Family Feud’s playbook. The value addition to the duopolies can make up for the lack of local sports opportunities that may have been true in the past.
- You could easily facilitate a negotiation with Sony to create FAST channels out of both shows’ libraries and nest them within Pluto. The ads CBS MV sells nationally could be aggregated with those channels’ audiences. Nielsen is moving toward platform-agnositic measurement and will be able to quantify that incremental viewing to advertisers by no later than the middle of your first license year, There already are a substantial number of other tools that can identify non-linear audience that can be used. By the way, the same is true for your stations.
- The ability to drive audience directly into your profitable local news and your struggling national news is unparalled. Age-based demography has become less consequential to adveriser demand and the quality of a viewer (HHI, purchase history and intent) is more meaningful. Median age is so 20th century.
- Working with and not against your distribution division isn’t a bad thing. NBCU and FOX, and even Disney in the case of LIVE!, know this. It certainly won’t be looked down upon by Bob Bakish.
- The worst is behind both shows’ rocky transitions. JEOPARDY! has found two hosts that are competent and stabliizing and under Michael Davies has maintained its creative integrity. WHEEL does have an inevitable transition ahead (Pat Sajak will be 76 next year, and Vanna qualifies for social security, too) but the lessons from its sister show assures that its evolution will be far less painful. The formats work. They are timeless and supercede any personalities.
- Further down the road? Perhaps Sony decides that after a very successful year at the box office (nice job, SPIDER-MAN) that the time to cash out of a media landscape simply too big for them to effectively compete in has come to pass. Tony Vinciquerra certainly knows your company–heck, he once had your job. These franchises will fit quite well under full ViacomCBS ownership and deliver massive profits annually that can help offset the cost of the investment that would be needed.
- And once that happens, thick of the spinoff possibilities! How about an all-comedy version of JEOPARDY! for Comedy Central? A real BLACK JEOPARDY! for BET? A kids version of WHEEL for Nickeolodeon (remember Wheel 2000?) A theatrical (or PVOD) movie based upon the search for Trebek’s replacement? You get the idea.
Wendy, the ball’s in your court. John’s one of the best in the business at making the numbers work and driving the best deal possible. The benefits to CBS are considerable. I hope you’ll consider this viewpoint.
Until next time…