Unaligneds' Fall Lines
Sony, Warner Bros. gird for first-run battle
By Jim Benson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/8/2005 8:00:00 PM
A month before anyone is supposed to officially care, first-run projects are cropping up for fall 2006. So will it be business as usual as the next selling season gets under way?
Well, that depends on your vantage point.
Since industry consolidation has left most major syndicators tied to big station groups, little will change for them. Stations belonging to top-tier groups will once again be able to dictate their programming needs to in-house suppliers (like Paramount, King World, Disney and Twentieth) when ill-performing shows open up holes in their schedules. The NBC O&Os have a project in the wings with NBC Universal's syndication arm, which plans a talk show with Will & Grace co-star Megan Mullally for next year.
But the issue will be whether major independents like Warner Bros. (including subsidiary Telepictures) and Sony Pictures Television can continue to afford to produce big-budget shows without partnering with the station groups belonging to ABC, CBS, NBC, Tribune and Fox.
Sony took the plunge last week, entering into a loose first-run alliance with the Tribune stations. Warner Bros., which has unofficially been tied to Tribune in the past, does business with a number of groups, including Fox.
With more and more distributors tied to broadcast groups, stations in the secondary markets and beyond will have even less control over what goes on their air now. It has become rare that stations outside the top markets can see a pilot and offer input before a national roll-out.
Despite lacking group affiliations, Warner Bros. and Sony have buttressed their first-run ledgers, thanks to Warner's diversification and Sony's twin goldmines, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! (Sony produces, King World distributes). Those shows minimize the damage from Sony failures like this season's Pat Croce: Moving In and Life & Style and the apparently failed attempt to launch a Robin Quivers talk show this fall.
Although Warner Bros. struck out with Larry Elder this season, the syndicator hit pay dirt with Ellen DeGeneres, which nimbly picked up the valuable affiliate CPM mantle of Rosie O'Donnell. Warner Bros. also has a spate of other shows, including Extra and People's Court, returning this fall.
Supermodel Tyra Banks' talk show from Telepictures got the Fox O&Os to break with their tradition of taking shows from outside studios only on a straight-barter basis. With many in-house failures dotting its schedule, Fox took the Banks show for fall on a cash-plus-barter basis, although industry sources speculate that its estimated $450,000-$500,000 weekly production costs far outweigh a paltry license fee the studio will get from the Fox O&Os. (Telepictures will likely try to make the costs up elsewhere.)
That is the sort of risk that unaligned studios like Warner Bros. and Sony have had to take to stay on the first-run playing field.
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