COVER STORY: Putting the 'My' in MyNetworkTV
Kirk Black thought he'd try something different for his struggling MyNetworkTV affiliate KSMO in Kansas City, Mo., this past summer. The station created and produced a dating show pairing up opposites, such as an animal-lover and a meat-eater, to see what sort of fireworks their dates would produce. He shot Not My Type in front of a live studio audience, and ran it Sundays at 9:30 p.m.
Kansas City viewers liked that their friends and neighbors were on the program. Local advertisers liked that they could sell their cars and pizzas to a targeted local audience -- at a bargain -- and even integrate their products into Not My Type. Says Black, “It made money right from the get-go.”
Airing after KSMO's primetime news, Type averaged around a 1.3 household rating and 4 share -- “a pretty good number for us,” says vice president and general manager Black -- over the course of its eight-week run. It was good enough that the new season of Not My Type, a 12-week installment, kicks off season two on the Meredith Broadcasting station Oct. 7.
“More and more, we're looking for opportunities to do local programming,” says Black, who's also had success with hyper-local programs like public-affairs show Your Kansas City and teen-talker My Teen Star TV. “Viewers like them, and they represent the best way to integrate advertisers in your marketplace into local sponsorship opportunities.”
It was a rough first year for MNT to say the least, but a new strategy has network brass -- as well as many in the affiliate and advertising community -- optimistic. As much as MNT is relying on reality shows, feature films and new celebrity-focused series, the fledgling network is offsetting losses and finding a voice through innovative programs dreamed up at the station level. While every station manager in America talks about delivering hyper-local content to their viewers, MNT stations -- forced to look in-house after network shows bombed -- have delivered on this mission in spades.
MNT quickly assembled last summer when the surprise merger of The WB and UPN networks into The CW persuaded News Corp. to create a competitor. Airing on 175 stations nationwide, MNT debuted last September with breathy telenovelas in prime. Originally pegged for syndication, the inexpensive Spanish-language soaps were a disaster. Greg Meidel, a respected TV veteran who took over as president in January, quickly overhauled programming on a severely restricted budget, phasing out the novelas in favor of mixed martial arts, reality and feature films, along with specials centered on celebrities such as Elton John and Princess Diana.
Station managers did some overhauling, too. “MyNetworkTV affiliates have really had to scramble and start from scratch,” says Meidel, formerly the president of programming at CBS Paramount Domestic Television. They've done a great job of developing their own franchise shows and creating their own image.”
To be sure, MNT's ratings are a drop in the TV-viewing bucket. Its primetime household ratings from September 2006-May 2007 averaged 0.8, with a 1 share, not even half of the next to last finisher, fellow rookie The CW, with a 1.8 rating/3 share. (Leading was CBS with a 7.9 household rating/13 share.)
Numbers in the 18-49 demo were similarly small: a 0.4 rating/1 share for MNT, compared with The CW's 1.1 rating/3 share in the demo. Some producers speak of shopping their shows to the bigger cable networks before trying MNT.
And the network has much ground to cover to become a true contender. In News Corp.'s fourth-quarter earnings call with analysts last month, president and chief operating officer Peter Chernin called fiscal-year 2007 “a pretty big disappointment,” but expressed optimism in the young network's future. (News Corp.'s fiscal year ended July 1.) Said Chernin, “Even in the fourth quarter our losses decreased by more than 50%.”
Chernin then pointed out that programming changes from March -- including phasing out the telenovelas -- reduced costs, increased ratings and set the network on course for the coming year. “We still have a ways to go [with MNT],” concluded Chernin, “and we're determined to get there.”
While MNT won't be squeezing into the Big Four -- or even battling The CW -- anytime soon, many in the advertising community are encouraged by the programming moves going into the second year.
Jackie Kulesza, VP of broadcast at media-buyer Starcom USA, said the celebrity shows were “a step in the right direction.” “In my job, competition is a great thing,” she says, “and I would love to see MyNetworkTV be a bigger player in the marketplace.”
Based on the performance of the celebrity specials, MNT set its Monday schedule for the fall with a pair of original series: Celebrity Exposé, from the producers of Access Hollywood, and Control Room Presents, featuring popular acts like John Mayer and Maroon 5.
Along with new unscripted programs like Decision House, with Judge Lynn Toler helping couples work on their relationships, and Jail, a “video-verité” look at people getting incarcerated from Cops creator John Langley, the network introduced the series NFL Network: Total Access Sept. 8. In so doing, Meidel threw a Hail Mary to males that the network lost with its telenovela strategy, and also sent the message that MNT was at least in the same ballpark as some big-league media partners.
“The NFL [National Football League] is the gold standard, and we're thrilled to be in business with them,” Meidel says. “Everyone who's been in business with them seems to succeed.”
Aligning with MNT's effort to bring in adult males, sports has been a vital part of the local strategy. From the Arizona Scorpions mixed-martial-arts workouts on KUTP Phoenix to the Rock River Raptors Arena Football League team airing in prime on the MNT digital channel of WTVO Rockford (Ill.), numerous MNT stations are delivering community sports programming that passionate fans won't find anywhere else.
Like the Rockford station, WPWR, the MNT half of the Fox-owned duopoly in Chicago, hopes to score with fans of local football. The station picked up a Chicago Bears-Washington Redskins contest for Dec. 6, which VP/GM Pat Mullen says should garner the highest rating the station has ever done, and also added a pair of Northern Illinois University football games for the fall. “Northern Illinois is a big deal around here,” he says. “If you're a fan of them, this is the only place you can watch it.”
But the local fare is hardly limited to sports. In the Bay Area, Young Broadcasting's KRON has hit success with an advertiser-targeted cluster of homespun series such as Nissan's Bay Area Backroads and Bay Area Bargains. KRON president/GM Mark Antonitis says Backroads airs in prime on weekends, while Bargains consistently wins its time slot. “Nothing gets on the air unless it's profitable,” he says.
Similar to KSMO's dating series, KUTP Phoenix has found a niche with My Dating Place, an interactive program that airs five nights a week.
Created and executive-produced by John Terenzio, the program was targeted to the substantial singles contingent residing in the growing DMA. Terenzio and station VP/GM Pat Nevin started on the Web, soliciting singles for an online dating service. From the uploaded photos and video, a pool of TV contestants was selected. The show debuted Monday, June 25 at 9 p.m.
In the most recent ratings, Dating Place pulled a 1.1 rating/2 share, and KUTP says it's seen a 175% ratings increase since the premiere. Moreover, mydatingplacephx.com has clocked 4.6 million page views since launch. Nevin calls the program a success. “Without news, the question was, how do we establish our brand identity, so we made a big push to develop local content,” he says. “The challenge with My Dating Place was finding a concept that looks and feels different. We feel we really have an opportunity with it to differentiate ourselves from the competition.”
Station managers say the niche programming establishes a bond with viewers who appreciate the station catering to their often less-than-broad tastes. Kieran Clarke, VP/GM of Meredith's Fox/MNT duopoly in Portland, Ore., was besieged by e-mail and calls after airing the University of Portland women's playoff soccer match against Notre Dame, which posted a 4 household rating on KPDX. “Usually people only contact the station when they're upset,” he says. “They were very thankful, and I was really grateful to read the e-mails.” (Clarke says he's also found substantial viewers with broadcasts of Portland LumberJax indoor lacrosse games.)
Bill Hague, senior VP of media research firm Frank N. Magid Associates, says the trend toward such targeted programming will only grow as people continue to live in a Google world, where they can specify precisely the type of content they wish to consume. “People are used to addressable content more than ever,” says Hague. “And [niche programming] is a way to differentiate from the hundreds of channels out there.”
As much as MNT's super-local programming is a hit with viewers, station execs say it also taps into a pool of advertisers the network otherwise might not reach. Black says the local shows are a good fit for numerous small businesses in the Kansas City market who find themselves priced out of the Big Four stations. “The local Chevy dealer is not going to buy a sponsorship on American Idol,” he says, “but they might be interested in the host of our dating show driving around town in a sponsored car.”
While network brass may not love the concept of affiliates pre-empting a primetime show for a tractor pull or hot dog eating contest, MNT executive VP Paul Franklin says the network fully supports stations as they seek out content that caters specifically to their DMA. “The [original] concept was to give them this brand and let them embrace local awareness in their market,” he says. “If they're able to take advantage of what we're doing and supplement that with what they're doing, that's great. The better they do, the better we do.”
To be sure, MNT won't be winning ratings crowns on the backs of low-budget local programs. Moreover, many station execs would much rather air a solid network performer than their own show; producing programs is exhausting, especially when a GM is already tasked with growing a duopoly's news output, shaping a digital strategy, and the rest of his/her other daily tasks. KUTP boss Nevin has six staffers dedicated to My Dating Place, while KSMO's Black is searching for a producer to handle logistics such as finding contestants and filling the studio audience for Not My Type. “It's a pain,” he concedes. “Producing a show is hard.”
And, MNT outlets certainly are not the only stations out there producing unique local television. “Local TV is not a MyNetworkTV phenomenon,” says Hague. “Everybody's trying new stuff.” (The CW network, for one, declined to comment on its affiliates' local shows.)
Nonetheless, MNT brass and affiliates alike say local programming will continue to be a cornerstone for the network. In July, WFLD Chicago's fireworks special went from a local production to a primetime network special, and Meidel says MNT will do the same for a Los Angeles gospel special that will air around Christmas. He will continue to monitor the affiliates for fare that might make the leap to national. “There are a lot of great ideas coming out of local markets,” Meidel says. “We'll look at those opportunities as they make themselves available.”