In first-run syndication, a program is broadcast for the first time as a syndicated show and is made specifically to sell directly into syndication (not any one particular network), or at least first so offered in a given country (programs originally created and broadcast outside the US, first presented on a network in their country of origin, have often been syndicated in the US and in some other countries);
In off-network syndication, a program that originally aired on network television (or, in some cases, first-run syndication) is licensed for broadcast on another network. Reruns are usually found on stations affiliated with smaller networks like Fox or the CW, especially since these networks broadcast one less hour of prime time network programming than the Big Three television networks and far less network-provided daytime television (only one hour for the CW, none at all for Fox). A show usually enters off-network syndication when it has built up about four seasons' worth or between 80 and 100 episodes, though for some genres the number could be as low as 65. Successful shows in syndication can cover production costs and make a profit, even if the first run of the show was not profitable.
This type of syndication has arisen in the U.S. as a parallel service to member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the handful of independent public broadcasting stations. This form of syndication more closely resembles the news agency model, where nominally competing networks share resources and rebroadcast each other's programs. For example, National Public Radio (NPR) stations commonly air the Public Radio Exchange's This American Life, which may contain stories produced by NPR journalists.
When syndicating a show, the production company, or a distribution company called a syndicator, attempts to license the show to one station in each media market or area, or to a commonly owned station group, within the country and internationally. If successful, this can be lucrative, but the syndicator may only be able to license the show in a small percentage of the markets. Syndication differs from licensing the show to a television network. Once a network picks up a show, it is usually guaranteed to run on most or all the network's affiliates on the same day of the week and at the same time (in a given time zone, in countries where this is a concern). Some production companies create their shows and license them to networks at a loss, at least at first, hoping that the series will succeed and that eventual off-network syndication will turn a profit for the show. A syndicated program is licensed to stations for "cash" (the stations purchase the rights to insert some or all of the advertisements at their level); given to stations for access to airtime (wherein the syndicators get the advertising revenue); or the combination of both. The trade of program for airtime is called "barter."
In the United States (as a result of continued relaxation of station ownership regulations since the 1970s), syndicated programs are usually licensed to stations on a group level, with multiple stations owned and/or operated by the same broadcasting group carrying the program in different markets (except in areas where another station holds the market rights to the program) – making it increasingly more efficient for syndicators to gain widespread national clearances for their programs. Many syndicated programs are traditionally sold first to one of five "key" station groups (ABC Owned Television Stations, NBC Owned Television Stations, CBS Television Stations, Fox Television Stations and Tribune Broadcasting), allowing their programs to gain clearances in the largest U.S. TV markets (such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, where all five aforementioned groups each own stations), before striking deals with other major and smaller station owners. Shows airing in first-run syndication that are carried primarily by an owned-and-operated station of a network may sometimes be incorrectly referenced as a network program, especially if said network's syndication wing distributes the program, regardless to its distribution to stations of varying network affiliations and despite the fact it is not part of an individual network's base schedule.
Since the early 2000s, some programs being proposed for national distribution in first-run syndication have been test marketed on a selected number of or all stations owned by certain major station group, allowing the distributor to determine whether a national roll-out is feasible based on the ratings accrued in the selected markets where the program is being aired.
While market penetration can vary widely and revenues can be unreliable, the producers often enjoy more content freedom in the absence of network's standards and practices departments; frequently, some innovative ideas are explored by first-run syndicated programming which the networks are leery of giving airtime to. Meanwhile, top-rated syndicated shows in the United States usually have a domestic market reach as high as 98%. Very often, series' that are aired in syndication have reduced running times. For example, a standard American sitcom runs 22 minutes, but in syndication it may be reduced to 20 minutes to make room for more commercials.
Syndication can take the form of either weekly or daily syndication. Game shows, some "tabloid" and entertainment news shows, and talk shows are broadcast daily on weekdays, while most other first-run syndicated shows are broadcast on a weekly basis and are usually aired on weekends only. Big discussion occurred in the 1990s and 2000s about whether previously aired episodes of a show could become syndicated while new episodes of it continued to air on its original network. There had been much opposition to this idea and it was generally viewed to lead to the death of the show. However, licensing a program for syndication actually resulted in the increased popularity for shows that remained in production. A prime example is Law & Order.