In an enormous shift in the syndication business, two popular comic strips along with about 150 other features have been handed from United Media to Universal Uclick, which will now manage all aspects of syndication for the Scripps' subsidiary.

The outsourcing of content from United Media to Universal Uclick took effect immediately and will be completed by June 1. Under the deal, Universal Uclick will honor all existing United contracts and provide editorial and production services, sales and marketing, sales support and customer service, and distribution and fulfillment for all the news features and United Media comics.

Cincinnati-based Scripps said it will retain "certain copyrights" and "control the licenses" for those properties.

"We think this puts us in a great position," said John Glynn, vice president of acquisitions and rights at Universal. "In the short term, it means one less guy selling against us."

The move reduces the number of large syndicates providing content to newspapers from three to two, with King Features being the other. According to Lisa Klem Wilson, senior vice president and general manager at United Media, the consolidation of newspaper syndicates was unavoidable.

"There can only be two top players now in newspaper syndication," Wilson told The Washington Post. "The market is shrinking - the number of newspapers, the size, everything."

The New York Daily News recently dropped one-third of its comics (about 12 features), and in an era when many newspapers are looking to either cut back or not give new features a try, the thought of losing a major outlet for new work is troubling for many cartoonists.

"This just means one less option on the road to traditional syndication for cartoonists," said Graham Nolan, cartoonist for the King-syndicated "Red Morgan, MD" comic strip. "Not a good sign."

One Less Option
Ted Rall, former editor of acquisitions and development at United Media, doesn't think that this move was caused by a shrinking newspaper market, and doesn't mince words about it.

"Shortsighted executives not only didn't have ideas, they shot them down when smart people spoke up," said Rall, whose cartoons and columns are syndicated by Universal Uclick. "If there were any justice, they'd be thrown in jail, and their assets would be redistributed to the scores of decent, hard-working workers who are about to wind up in the street due to their negligence and malfeasance."

Speculation over United's future in the syndication business arose last April, when Scripps announced that it sold United Media Licensing, a $2-billion-a-year merchandise business, to Iconix Brand Group for $175 million.

Next, United wasn't able to come to mutually agreeable terms with industry giant "Peanuts," which struck a distribution deal with Universal Uclick that took effect back in February.

"Dilbert" followed suit in December, with creator Scott Adams hailing the deal as a promotion for one of the country's most popular comic strips. "Universal Uclick is the industry leader, and I'm delighted to be able to work with them," Adams said at the time.

"We could not be more pleased to welcome the inspired creators represented by these features," said John McMeel, co-founder, chairman, and president of Andrews McMeel Universal, which owns Universal Uclick.

"Universal really is a good company full of people who do seem to care about comics and care about their creators, so here's a hopeful look toward where things are headed," said David Reddick, an artist at Paws, Inc., which produces "Garfield," syndicated by Universal Uclick.

No word yet on what will happen with overlapping features, such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku games, and horoscopes.

"We will be honoring all the contracts that come over," Glynn said. "But realistically, after both those terms are up, we're bound to have some redundancy if we have two creators doing the same features."

Online Benefit
The deal will also combine the features on Comics.com and GoComics.com to create one of the largest daily comic destinations on the Web. The website and all related widgets and mobile applications will be available to consumers in June.

"The real opportunity this deal presents is online," Glynn said. "It deepens our list of online content, and will allow us to take our United clients to widgets like our popular iGoogle gadget, which drives a huge amount of traffic to our website."

Change can be nerve-wracking, especially for cartoonists who have suffered mightily due to the many drivers causing a decline in newspapers. But Rall thinks the move from United to Universal will be a boon to many of the creators there.
"Landing at Universal is the best fate the cartoonists and columnists being transferred from United could have hoped for," Rall said. "Universal is financially viable and run by nice, honest people. Generally speaking, however, consolidation is always bad for media. It limits diversity and freedom of choice."

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine, and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at rob@delawarepunchline.com.

 



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