Lassie can still claim a spot as one of the longest running prime-time dramas in the history of television. The show ran for 17 seasons from 1954 to 1971 before a strange quirk caused by a new Federal Communications Commission rule resulted in Lassie moving into a new territory, that of first-run syndication, for two more seasons. While syndication has been part of the regular TV landscape since the 1950s, it’s still a function of programming that not a lot people understand. Here’s a look at the three main types of TV syndication, along with Lassie’s strange journey from network mainstay to prime-time pariah.
To understand syndication, you have to look past the network TV mindset and consider individual stations. Although TV stations that are network affiliates can receive programming all day, there are still hours in a day that individual stations can choose to fill with other programming. Typically, those are syndicated programs; that is, programs distributed to individual stations from non-network producers or outlets. They can be anything from late-night infomercials to game shows to entertainment news programs and many points in between. Other independent stations that aren’t part of a network would require more of syndicated programming to fill their broadcast day.
You’re probably most familiar with “off-network syndication” or, to put it simply, reruns. Networks regularly take shows that have finished their runs and repackage them for lucrative syndication deals. Sometimes they’re sold to other cable networks, like TNT or Lifetime, or streaming services. The majority of off-network syndicated shows these days go to basic cable networks. Networks used to refer to 100 episodes as “the magic number” for syndication, as the show could be packaged and sold to ensure a solid 20 weeks of weekday programming for your series, making the profits for the network much larger. Deals for shows like Friends and The Office were substantial even before they became streaming darlings. Some shows that entered syndication while they were still running new episodes experienced a surge in popularity, notably the original Law & Order.
The second type of syndication is first-run syndication — shows that were produced by independent outlets or syndicates and were then sold to stations. The Cisco Kid, which launched in 1950, was created this way. Other classics that you may recall from this era were Sea Hunt, The Abbott and Costello Show, and Highway Patrol.
Public Broadcasting Stations have their own type of syndication; producers can license shows to individual stations or groups of stations, and the stations decide when and where to run them. Whereas Sesame Street, for example, used to run at roughly the same time across most PBS stations, shows like This Old House might have appeared wherever it suited the local outlet to place it.
Syndication experienced a shift 50 years ago. That’s when the FCC passed both the Prime Time Access Rule and the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules. The Financial Interest and Syndication Rules made the big TV networks separate their syndication departments into separate companies. The FCC hoped this would stimulate the production of more local programming. It didn’t do that exactly; many stations were happy to buy off-network shows. However, some shows that were initially local productions, like Soul Train, exploded into national popularity as stations looked for new material.
And then there’s the case of Lassie. The Prime Time Access Rule was designed to foster more competition with the Big Three networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) by removing the 7 p.m. slot of prime time and giving it back to local stations (the networks were allowed to keep Sunday, which is why 60 Minutes, for example, still airs at 7p.m. on CBS). NBC simply shrugged and added more programs in late night. CBS, on the other hand, decided to cancel a number of shows; this led to the so-called “rural purge,” in which shows that didn’t cater to desirable younger demographics, like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Mayberry R.F.D., were cancelled outright. In most cases, the shows were still popular.
For Lassie, not only was the show still popular, but it had been on the air for 17 seasons. However, with the 7 o’clock hour a loss, the network thought that moving it to a later slot would only hurt it with the youngsters the show drew. The show was “cancelled” at the network, but moved immediately over to first-run syndication where it carried on for another two seasons; it ended its 19-year run in 1973, having produced 591 total episodes. It remains one of the longest-running scripted TV dramas ever made. Another show to make the jump to first-run syndication after being cancelled by the networks in 1971 was Wild Kingdom; the former NBC nature show immediately entered syndication and ran until 1988.
The shape of syndication has continued to evolve over the years. The 1980s and 1990s were high points for first-run syndication, with shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Forever Knight having successful runs. Some network-cancelled shows like Baywatch became behemoths in syndication, achieving worldwide popularity that they didn’t have on-network. Animation boomed, too, with “after-school” cartoons like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a whole armada of Disney shows (including the two-hour Disney Afternoon block) earning massive success.
Today, most first-run programs tend toward the reality side, with talk shows, “judge shows,” and game shows furthering the format. Sitcom The First Family, which launched in 2012, was the first new first-run comedy since 2000. The era of the first-run drama or comedy has shifted away from syndication and toward streaming. So has the notion of the cancelled network show moving to syndication; the long-running Criminal Minds, for example, which left the air in February of 2020, is eying a revival on Paramount+. NBC’s A.P. Bio shifted from the network after two seasons to their Peacock streaming service; the show might have ended on-air, but now it’s already renewed for a fourth season.
The way in which we take in television is constantly evolving. The entire notion of syndication already seems almost quaint by today’s standards. The strange case of Lassie, in which a successful show is forced out of its TV home by a quirk of FCC rules, does more to underline how the networks face a number of regulations and unspoken traditions that the streamers don’t have to follow. Streaming content can be more mature or more specifically targeted to particular groups. With no particular run-time to conform to, individual episodes can be longer or shorter to fit the needs of the story. More tellingly, Netflix has roughly 200 million subscribers, and Disney+ is pushing 95 million after a little over a year of operation, while broadcast network ratings continue to erode. Broadcast TV isn’t going away anytime soon, but it’s not unthinkable to imagine that the regular networks, like Lassie, might eventually get sent to the farm.
Featured image: Actor Tommy Rettig with co-star Lassie from the Collie’s TV show (Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain).
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