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Dualing Networks

Big Four-affiliates line up to air UPN over DTV channels 9/21/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

It's a classic win-win, says UPN Affiliate Vice President Sandy Pastoor. UPN expands its coverage and small-market TV broadcasters put their digital stations to work as UPN affiliates, she says. "This is a very solid business ... for them and us."

Today, Young Broadcasting's ABC affiliate, WTVO(TV) Rockford, Ill. (DMA 135), is set to become the ninth station affiliated with one of the Big Four networks to double up and broadcast UPN over its digital channel. Raycom's CBS affiliate WAFB(TV) Baton Rouge, La., will soon become the tenth.

UPN is talking seriously with a half a dozen other stations about digital affiliations, says Pastoor. Others are calling, she says. "There are a lot of small markets where this might make some sense."

UPN reaches 89% of the 108.4 million TV homes through analog affiliates. Pastoor says UPN would like to increase the coverage as much as possible through the digital affiliates, although she concedes that the gains will only come in small increments. UPN already has analog affiliates in the larger market will big gains could be made.

UPN rival The WB is also in the digital game, but not as deeply. The WB has three digital affiliates and may sign or more. Unlike UPN, however, its digital affiliates will be mostly confined to markets below 100, since they use cable systems as affiliates in many markets 100 and above.

UPN could follow The WB's lead and sign on cable systems as affiliates, but prefers broadcasters because they have a "presence" in their markets through local programming and news and community events. "We want a local broadcaster to be there with us as much as possible," Pastoor says.

UPN also prefers to give its digital affiliation to CBS analog affiliates because UPN and CBS are corporate cousins, units of Viacom. But, Pastoor says, it doesn't always work out. In Rockford, for example, the negotiations with Young were already fairly far along when the CBS affiliate came in with a proposal. "We want to have the strongest partner in every market, just like every network does," she says.

No money is changing hands in the affiliation agreements, Pastoor says. UPN is only insisting that its digital affiliates acquire good complementary programming and promote the station.

WTVO General Manager Gwen Kinsey is happy to have UPN and plans to use it to build the digital channel into a full-blown station and generate a second revenue stream. "UPN is an established brand that offers a lot of flexibility," she says.

Since few TV homes have digital TV sets, the key to making the digital affiliation work is cable carriage. The digital affiliate must work out a deal with the local cable systems to carry its signal and give it a good channel position—near the other broadcast stations.

Kinsey was able to cut a deal local cable operator, Insight Communications. "I have very good relations" with Insight, she says.

Starting its digital station from scratch, WTVO benefitted from the fact that there is no independent in Rockford, which means a lot of syndicated product is available to fill out the rest of the schedule.

"We tried to put together a schedule with marquee programming, grouped together in blocks that made it easier to promote, skewed to a younger audience," says Kinsey.

With UPN taking up just two hours a night—7 to 9 p.m.—Kinsey also has some prime time to fill, which she does on weekdays with back-to-back airings of Montel Williams and Jerry Springer. On weekends, there are prime time sci-fi blocks, driven by the replay, part of the affiliation agreement, of UPN's Wednesday night Star Trek series, Enterprise.

Kinsey has bought some brand-building off-net UPN shows—including Moesha and The Parkers—for the 3 to 5 p.m. weekday sitcom block. It's preceded by the "Justice is Served" block, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It comprises Judge Hatchett, People's Court, Judge Joe Brown and Judge Mathis. What, no Judge Judy? She wasn't available, says Kinsey, but only because she is already on analog WTVO.

Is WTVO competing against itself? "Why not lose the rest of the audience that is looking for alternative to soaps to ourself," Kinsey says. "Are the people watching TGIF the same ones watching Springer? So, why can't we have a shot at both audiences?"

Kinsey also wants to get some local programming into the mix. The schedule already has some syndicated Hispanic shows, she says, but "as we start to build the brand, and get some revenue on the books, we'll start to add some local Hispanic programming."

Kinsey is also looking at news "down the road" and hasn't ruled out repurposing some of WTVO's news or entertainment. "That certainly provides the viewer with one more alternative to watch the program, but how does that establish the brand?"

UPN's Digital Deliverers
Digital stations of various affiliations are using a portion of their digital signal to create a UPN affiliate as well.
Station Affil. UPN ID owner
*Both stations, operated by Pegasus, constitute a single UPN affiliation.
WTVO Rockford, Ill. ABC Rockford UPN 16 Young
WSDT South Bend, Ind. CBS UPN Michiana Schurz
WBOC Salisbury, Md. CBS UPN 21 Draper
KBJR Duluth, Minn. NBC UPN 9 Granite
WCBI Columbus, Miss. CBS UPN Mississippi Imes
WCTI New Bern, N.C. ABC UPN 48 Lamco
KFDA Amarillo, Tex. CBS UPN 6 Drewry
KOSA Odessa-Midland, Tex. CBS UPN 16 ICA
WISC Madison, Wis. CBS UPN 14 Morgan Murphy