Fast Track


'Sopranos' Makes A&E a Big Shot

Ratings have leveled, but series sets tone for network

By Anne Becker

The best way to assess the performance of The Sopranos, two months into its multi-year run on A&E, may be to compare it to the series' main character himself.

Since a stellar Jan. 10 premiere, the show, which the network bought for a record $200 million-plus last year, is holding steady at a weekly rating down more than 50% from its debut and currently skews older than A&E's 2006 median age of 44.5, which the network devoted several years' effort to lowering.

But the marquee property has boosted its time-period average and lifted the network's ratings. It has also brought in business from fistfuls of new advertisers, and provided a vital tentpole to promote both the existing slate and new series.

So, like Tony Soprano and his cohorts, the series exacted a price, came in like gangbusters, is doing things its own way, settled in as the biggest presence in the neighborhood and persuaded everybody to show it some respect. And it ain't goin' nowhere for a while.

Once-stodgy A&E surprised many in the TV community when it won a January 2005 bidding war for rights to rerun the HBO show, agreeing to pay $2.55 million an episode. The searing crime drama roared out of the gate with 4.4 million total viewers, including 1.9 million in the key adults 18-49 demo.

Since then, it has averaged about 1.9 million total viewers (861,000 in 18-49). It continues to perform better with new episodes on Wednesday nights at 9 and 10 p.m. ET than with repeats of those episodes on following Mondays, but it has remained consistent.

More important, however, the series has boosted 18-49 viewing for the hours before and after its time periods by 27% and 8%, respectively. And, for the month of February, the network's overall rating in prime was up 52% in total viewers, 40% in 18-49. That shift made A&E the fourth-most-watched cable network in the demo during prime for February, the best it has ever ranked with those viewers. It placed 10th in the demo last year.

“We're thrilled with the performance of The Sopranos to date,” says A&E Executive VP/General Manager Bob DeBitetto. “It's performing within a range that we looked at before we made the investment.”

So far, The Sopranos' average viewer is 50.3 years old, but this is not surprising, since acquired dramas tend to skew older. At the same time, the show helped coax 30 new advertisers to A&E in 2006, with another 20 already set for 2007, says AETN Ad Sales Executive VP Mel Berning. The client list includes Yellow Book, Texas Instruments, Alltel, TGI Friday's and Taco Bell.

“They're meeting their guarantees and obligations,” says PHD Executive VP/Director of National Broadcast Harry Keeshan, who bought ads for his client Quiznos and is pitching the show to new advertisers this year.

Although A&E didn't sign any multi-year deals with Sopranos advertisers, five have already re-upped. Even more new clients are likely to sign during this year's upfront, as those who took a wait-and-see stance jump in.

The true test will be Sopranos' performance for its first two years on A&E. The show is certain to see a bump when the final batch of new episodes returns on HBO next month, and A&E has rights to show reruns for about four years.

A&E is also banking on it to establish the mood for its first batch of scripted dramas, set to debut in 2008. A slate of 15-16 under consideration is heavy on legal dramas and cop shows. The network just hired a new head of marketing, in part to address what DeBitetto diplomatically calls “legacy issues.”

“I wouldn't say a smart, strategic repositioning of A&E is overdue,” he says, “but it's due.”

Church Battles Tribune in Hartford

The United Church of Christ last week challenged the license renewals of two Tribune stations, WTIC and WTXX both Hartford, Conn., where the group has asked for a waiver of the newspaper/broadcast crossownership rule. UCC says it doesn't deserve it.

Tribune, which has been shopping its stations, owns the Hartford Courant newspaper and has been operating the stations for six and seven years, respectively, under a succession of temporary waivers; the FCC declined to grant permanent ones. The rule bans common ownership of TV stations and newspapers in a market.

In 2003, the FCC passed new ownership rules that would have lifted the ban, but the rules were challenged in court and remanded to the commission by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals for revision and better justification.

Shawn Sheehan, Tribune's top lobbyist, suggests that last week's challenge could actually help advance the goal of lifting the ban on crossownership.

“If we can ever get this thing to court,” he says, “we are confident that the crossownership rule is going to get knocked out.” If the FCC denies the renewal, the appeal would go to the D.C. Circuit, where Sheehan likes his chances.

One of the changes the Third Circuit didn't seem to have a problem with was lifting the ban. Just last week, House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) suggested that lifting the ban, one of Sheehan's long-sought goals, might finally happen, although the FCC's rule rewrite probably won't happen until early next year at the soonest.

The Hartford station licenses expire April 1.—John Eggerton

CW To Stream 'Top Model'

Beginning today, The CW will stream episodes of America's Next Top Model on its Website free to users and with commercial breaks.

Episodes will be available online each Monday following each Wednesday network airing. The CW now has eight of its series available on its site.

The eighth cycle of Top Model premiered Wednesday, Feb. 28 and averaged a 3.5 rating in the network's target 18-34 demographic, its best-ever debut. — Ben Grossman

Reiss Out as NBC Mulls Replacement

NBC News said John Reiss, executive producer of Nightly News, has been reassigned within the department after less than two years in his position.

The news came as ABC's World News overtook Nightly News in the ratings three weeks ago, although NBC says his departure was not linked to that. NBC finished sweeps in second place for the first time since November 1996 in total viewers and the target 25-54 demo. World News has been the only nightly network newscast to increase its ratings year-over-year.

Floated by network executives as Reiss' replacement at Nightly News is Alex Wallace, an NBC VP currently charged with overseeing the program, as well as the network's news specials.

Season-to-date, NBC is ahead of ABC by 464,000 viewers—Anne Becker

Shive Bumped Up At Belo Corp.

Belo Corp. has promoted Dunia Shive to president/COO, responsible for executing the company's strategy for its broadcast, newspaper and Internet properties. She will continue to report to Robert Decherd, who is giving up his title of president but remaining as chairman/CEO of the Dallas-based company.

Shive, 46, began her Belo career as controller in 1993 and later served as its chief financial officer and executive VP. Most recently, she was president of media operations.

In other Belo news, the company last week purchased WUPL New Orleans, a MyNetworkTV affiliate, from CBS Corp. The agreement, which has received FCC approval, also settles litigation between Belo and CBS over the deal that arose after Hurricane Katrina. The addition of WUPL creates Belo's fifth duopoly including Seattle/Tacoma, Phoenix, Spokane and Tucson.—Glen Dickson

Reilly Stays Put At NBC

NBC gave Kevin Reilly a vote of confidence last week in its expected inking of a deal to keep the entertainment president in his post for the next three years.

And Reilly, who has halted the network's primetime ratings plunge and given NBC some newfound momentum despite massive cuts at NBC Universal and constant rumors about his job security, says he is just happy to have all the questions about his future behind him.

Although Reilly was open to other offers, his first choice was always to remain with NBC. “I believe there were other options,” he acknowledges. “It hasn't been an easy couple of years. But I really wanted to finish what I started.”

Reilly has begun to reestablish NBC's reputation with ratings hits like Heroes and Deal or No Deal and high-quality critical darlings like The Office, Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock.

But, with plenty of holes in NBC's schedule and with expensive failures like this year's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the network still has to find more assets.—Ben Grossman