‘Dr. Phil’ ending after 21 seasons, another sign syndication is shifting

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Popular daytime syndicated talk showDr. Phil” will end its 21-season run — a move that has the potential to shake-up both the syndication and local news markets.

Hosted by Dr. Phil McGraw, the show launched in 2002 after McGraw gained popularity from regular appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Now produced and distributed by CBS Media Ventures, the advice-style talk show is frequently rated in the top five syndicated programs on television.

“Dr. Phil” is frequently used by stations, including CBS-owned ones in major markets, as a lead-in to local news, meaning going off the air could cause shifts in the ratings.

A similar effect was observed when “Oprah” went off the air — her show was so popular that stations that held the rights to it frequently saw high ratings when it was aired ahead of their local newscasts.

CBS Media Ventures also lost the lucrative “Judge Judy” in 2021, after its namesake arbitrator Judith Sheindlin signed with Amazon instead of renewing her syndication deal.

Many CBS stations also carried “Judy.” CBS Media Ventures is still distributing the show in post-series production repeats, providing stations with what it considers “new” episodes. These episodes all feature content that has already aired, with some edited to feature different cases than were originally aired together.

In some ways, this essentially gave stations two years’ advance notice to find other programming.

To fill the gap left by new episodes of “Judy,” some stations launched an additional hour of local news, though others are still carrying the repeat versions through the end of the 2022-2023 season when that deal expires.

Similarly, CBS Media Ventures is planning to offer stations the option to carry repeat episodes of “Dr. Phil” for the 2023-2024 season. They will likely be offered out-of-order than their original airings and remove ones that are no longer timely or, perhaps, didn’t perform as well in the ratings.

It’s not immediately clear what stations will stick with the option to air repeats for another year before bringing in another show.

The syndication market is relatively dry for the 2023-2024 season. A smaller number of new series are launching, and many have already been spoken for in many markets, which could force some stations into carrying the repeats or opting for another hour of local news.

Local news could potentially be a viable option for many stations that either don’t have any other options to fill the hour with or decide any potential replacements wouldn’t perform well.

In general, it’s relatively easy to launch additional hours local news in a relatively short time period if a station already has a newsroom.

The upcoming season could prove challenging because of  “Judy” also exiting syndication.

Many CBS-owned stations that carry or carried “Judy” just completed launching a 9 a.m. 30-minute local news block coupled with the first part of syndicated talker “The Drew Barrymore Show.”

“Drew” switched to a split format in 2022 that allowed stations to air the entire 60 minutes or break them into two separate, 30-minute airings (in some markets, the second half hour doesn’t air at all). 

Despite the upcoming 2024 election season that could funnel millions in advertising toward local stations, it remains to be seen if stations will see adding another hour of local news as a viable option.

In the case where a station airs both “Judy” repeats and “Dr. Phil,” they could potentially be left with two hours to fill if they opt not to air “Phil” repeats.

Filling two hours of a schedule with local news could potentially be more challenging — and may not even be viable if the newscasts don’t have quality lead-ins.

The end of “Dr. Phil” represents another mark in an industry-wide shift in the syndicated daytime TV market.

Many of these types of shows, including ones such as “The Ellen DeGenres Show” and “Oprah,” were ratings powerhouses and often helped stations create strong afternoon and evening local news blocks.

However, “Ellen” went off the air in 2022. NBC-owned stations that held the rights to the show in major markets and opted to either fill the hour with local news and, where possible due to the time differences, the east coast feed of “NBC Nightly News.” Others filled the hour with “Dateline” reruns.

Recent talk show launches, including one from Nick Cannon, didn’t perform well and were canceled while other launches such as “Sherri” and “The Jennifer Hudson Show” are locked into multiyear deals.

Top-rated syndicated programming can often be extremely expensive — with stations shelling out millions of dollars per year for the rights to air popular programs. Often this expense is justified because, in addition to the ad revenue the show generates, it can draw in audiences for local newscasts, which are typically relatively inexpensive to produce and allows stations to keep all ad revenue aired during them.

High-rated syndicated programs make money by charging stations licensing fees, selling select ad time during each episode and with in-program native advertising segments (McGraw frequently featured segments hawking his wife’s skin care line).

Stations, meanwhile, sell the bulk of advertising time during syndicated programs themselves, with the goal being able to bring in more ad dollars than it cost to buy the program (though some stations are willing to take a loss if it helps improve lead-ins for local news).

Local news is often considered to be “DVR-proof” in addition to being relatively inexpensive to produce. Because viewers tend to consume local news live, they are less likely to skip commercial breaks, meaning newscasts can often command higher advertising rates.

However, if the syndication market continues to remain dry, stations could face a decreasing number of options to pick from to use as lead-ins to local news. This could affect local news ratings, including dramatic shifts in viewership.

There has been the start of a trend toward syndicated programming being launched by smaller entities rather than giants such as CBS Media Ventures or Warner Bros. For example, Entertainment Studios reportedly has multiple shows in development. Other station groups, such as Gray Television, have also started developing their own programs in lieu of syndicated shows because they can control the costs and retain all of the ad revenue.

Strong points in the syndication market include true crime and game shows, with old “Dateline” content already being widely syndicated and shows such as “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” continuing to perform well.

In some ways these trends could be lucrative for those shows left in syndication — fewer popular shows could spur bidding wars when program agreements come up for renewal.

McGraw, meanwhile, has signed a deal with CBS to produce primetime specials, though what those are and when they will air has not been announced. Unlike his talk show, these will likely air on almost all (if not all) CBS stations because it will not be syndicated.

Billed as a “safe place to talk about hard things,” “Dr. Phil” frequently tackles issues such as mental health, addiction, family dysfunction, health, and other topics that are ostensibly connected to psychology. Special episodes also focus on names in the news, sometimes taking on a celebrity or true-crime tilt.

Throughout much of its run, the show has come under criticism for McGraw, including his use of the title “Dr.” because he only holds a Ph.D. in psychology and no longer holds a license to practice that.

Some guests have made accusations that members of the production team allegedly feed into the very issues they are appearing on the show for — all in the name of causing more drama and better television, though this has never been confirmed.