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Fast Track - Broadcasting & Cable

Fast Track

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ABC Deal Stuns Affils

Free downloads leave stations cold

Six months after ABC shocked its affiliates by cutting a deal with Apple to sell some of its shows on iTunes, the network last week unveiled an online- distribution deal that once again bypasses ABC stations, raising new concerns for local broadcasters.

In May, ABC will launch a two-month trial to make four hit shows, including Lost and Desperate Housewives, available on its Web site. Unlike the iTunes offering, where users buy episodes for $1.99, the repeats on ABC.com will be free, potentially widening the appeal.

The development alarms station operators, many of whom say privately they risk losing prime time viewers and undermining the promotional platform for local news, a station's biggest moneymaker. Publicly, though, local broadcast executives reacted cautiously.

“We are living in a world where we all need to experiment, but I caution [the network] not to push it so far they undermine the core business,” says Gannett Broadcast President Roger Ogden, whose company owns three ABC outlets.

ABC executives briefed some station owners on the plan April 10, the day the deal was announced. Most did not have advance notice of the iTunes deal.

A major sticking point for affiliates is sharing potential revenue. As ABC and the other broadcast networks offer their shows online and through video-on-demand, stations want to be included in any revenue from subscriptions or advertising. Without the local stations, managers contend, the networks' shows would not gain the exposure necessary to attract interest on new platforms.

Stations are also interested in new technologies, such as an offering from technology firm Decisionmark being tested by CBS affiliate WRAL Raleigh, N.C., that would allow stations to stream network shows on their Web sites but only to their markets.

ABC has told affiliates it will consider ways to give them a piece of the action. Those discussions are expected to be at the forefront of the affiliates meeting in New York in May. “We have been partners with ABC for a long time and will continue to explore new ways to build audiences,” said Belo Corp.'s President of Media Operations Dunia Shive.

At the same time, stations are intensely focused on delivering their own local products, including their Web sites and digital broadcast channels, to grow revenes. Says Clear Channel Television exec Don Perry, “As long as our relationship with local viewers is intact, we're going to be fine.”—Allison Romano

King World, Sony To Team on Game Block

King World and Sony Pictures Television (SPT), longtime partners on the top-rated syndicated shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, are reuniting on a new one-hour game block set to debut in fall 2007.

Harry Friedman, who for eight years has led Wheel and Jeopardy!, will develop and executive-produce the two half-hour shows, but beyond that, neither company offered many details. At deadline, there was no word on what dayparts are targeted and whether stations will be required to run the shows as a block or sign one- or two-year license deals. The Sony-King World project is the first one slated for the fall 2007 syndication season. Game-show ratings are down recently, but Wheel and Jeopardy! are still franchise properties.

Unlike on those shows, King World and Sony will be designated as co-producers. And in this deal, SPT manages all national ad sales. Currently, King World sells 30-second commercials for Wheel and Jeopardy!, while SPT handles the 10-second spots and promotions. King World continues as the programs' distributor.—Jim Benson

Fox, Affiliates OK Web, VOD Deal

After months of negotiations, Fox cut a deal with its affiliates late last week to share revenue generated by new digital distribution, clearing the way for the network to offer its shows on the Internet and through video-on-demand (VOD). Fox stations will get a percentage of revenue from any subscriptions or advertising in repurposed programs.

It's the first comprehensive pact of its type between a network and its affiliate group. ABC sells several shows on iTunes, and affiliates don't share in that revenue. Next month, ABC will begin a two-month trial for free downloads of four hit shows on its Web site (see above). Most ABC stations heard about both deals the day they were announced. CBS cut a deal with Comcast to offer shows on VOD but only in markets where it owns CBS stations.

Stations argue that they play a key role in making network shows hits. “Fox recognizes that the affiliates can provide a great marketing platform,” says Brian Brady, president of Northwest Broadcasting and head of the affiliate board.

Fox sells some reruns on News Corp.-controlled DirecTV but has held back on other platforms. “It is in both of our best interests to exploit these rights,” says Fox Executive VP of Network Distribution Jon Hookstratten. “We are trying to work with affiliates as partners and move forward together.” As part of the deal, affiliates will continue to contribute to Fox's new six-year NFL deal.—Allison Romano

'Idol' Scores Big On the Internet

It's a huge hit for Fox on TV, and it turns out that American Idol is just as hot online. It has tripled over last year. The AmericanIdol.com site gathered an enormous 196 million page views last month, according to Internet-audience-measuring company comScore. That's three times more than the 65 million views during the show's March 2005 run. Fox says the site logged 10 million video streams in the past month.

Fox has bolstered the site with several new features this year: blogs and a “Get the Look” section where visitors can buy clothing like that worn by the contestants on the show, as well as what Fox touts as 300 times more photos. The newest feature is exclusive video interviews with the judges.

—Anne Becker

NY Times Breaks Up Discovery Venture

Looking to focus on the Web rather than on television, New York Times Co. is exercising an option to sell its half interest in cable network Discovery Times to partner Discovery Communications.

The well-respected news and documentary network never generated big ratings. NYT Co. spent $100 million in 2002 to buy into what was then known as Discovery Civilization. It hoped to expand its TV production unit to provide an outlet for some small-scale projects the newspaper publisher had in mind.

But along with other newspaper publishers, NYT Co. faces a dramatically shrinking print market, and company executives want cash to reinvest in their online efforts.

An outside appraiser will set the price Discovery must pay the newspaper company, but it will be no lower than $80 million and no higher than $135 million. Discovery Times hopes to keep the channel name temporarily and work with the Times on other projects.—John M. Higgins

The CW Signs 13 Stations

The CW signed 13 more stations to long-term affiliation deals last week, bringing its distribution to 79% of the country.

The latest affiliates: KWBT Tulsa, Okla. (owned by Griffin Communications); KSKN Spokane, Wash. (Belo Corp.); WQWQ Paducah, Ky. (Raycom Media); KWKB Cedar Rapids, Iowa (KM Communications); WISE Ft. Wayne, Ind. (Granite Broadcasting); WWMB Myrtle Beach (Barrington Broadcasting); KSNT Topeka, Kan., (Montecito Broadcast Group); KDLH Duluth, Minn. (Granite); KAUZ Wichita Falls, Texas (Hoak Media); WVIR Harrisburg/Charlottesville, Va. (Waterman Broadcasting); KVIQ Eureka, Calif. (Sainte Partners II); and KWYF Casper, Wyo. (Wyomedia Corp.).

Several of the deals are for carriage on digital stations.—A.R.

OLN's Name Game

Comcast's OLN (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) is preparing for a rebrand, considering such names as Victory TV, the Victory Channel, NOC: Network of Champions, Versus TV and Sports Nation TV.

Comcast Programming President Jeff Shell would not comment on the proposed names, but an OLN representative confirms that a rebrand is in the works and is likely to be formally announced in the coming months and implemented in the third quarter. The goal is to shy away from any “outdoor” connotations “so not everything is run through this outdoor filter,” says the representative. “To be true to the brand, we've said the network is much more about competition—man versus man, man versus beast, man versus nature.”

OLN in August took a big step toward becoming a rival to ESPN, beating out the sports giant for the TV rights to National Hockey League games, which clearly are not played outdoors. OLN, available in about 64 million homes, agreed to pay some $65 million to telecast hockey's current season.

The hockey acquisition, along with ensuing fee increases proposed by the network, caused some friction with Dish Network, which dropped OLN from its lineup in October. Dish says it recently added College Sports TV, the NFL Network and ESPN U at no additional cost and claims it “offers other channels that provide similar programming to OLN, such as The Outdoor Channel and the Men's Channel.”

OLN President Gavin Harvey downplayed the ESPN chase in previous conversations with B&C. But he added, “We don't want to be a small niche network. We want to be a big network.”—A.B.

Fox Taps Mullen

Fox Television Stations named the former head of Tribune Broadcasting to run its Chicago duopoly. Patrick Mullen, who exited Tribune six months ago amid disappointing financial performance at the stations, is the new VP/general manager for Fox outlets WFLD and WPWR, which will become a My Network TV station this fall. He replaces longtime General Manager Debbie Carpenter, who departed in March.

Mullen was president of Tribune Broadcasting from January 2003 until October 2005. Previously, he was GM for Fox affiliate WXMI Grand Rapids, Mich.—A.R.

TNT, TBS Launch Fresh Series

TNT unveiled a development slate of hour-long dramas, three of which focus on the family, while TBS concentrated on scripted comedies.

Robert Redford will executive- produce Generations, about three generations of one family who live in the same house. The network is teaming with The Closer executive producers Greer Shephard and Michael Robin for The Norms, which follows a dysfunctional Southern clan. And Middletown, from Sony Pictures Television and writer/executive producer John Masius (Providence), will focus on a husband and wife who are teachers at a local high school and are raising a 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old autistic son.

The new shows were announced and at the TNT/TBS upfront presentation to advertisers last week in New York. They are being developed as the network readies production for its 2007 six-hour limited series The Company, a CIA thriller set during the Cold War. The series comes from Sony Pictures Television and is executive-produced by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), Tony Scott (Numb3rs), John Calley (The Da Vinci Code) and David Zucker (Phone Booth).

TNT will run the premieres of its three big summer events ad-free. Season two of last summer's big hit, police procedural The Closer, returns in June, ad-free and sponsored by Audi. This summer's medical drama Saved, starring Tom Everett Scott as a paramedic, premieres in June. Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, a series of eight King horror stories, premieres in July.

TBS will produce two scripted series and develop several others as companion pieces to acquired comedies. The network greenlighted production of two half-hour Sony series: My Boys and 10 Items or Less. Both are slated for fourth quarter launches, with production kicking off later this year.

TBS built strong ratings from reruns of acquired shows including Sex and the City, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld and Friends but has been less successful with the original comic reality shows such as Daisy Does America and Minding the Store, neither of which earned second-season renewals.

Boys follows a twentysomething female sportswriter, whose tomboyish ways hurt her dating life. Jordana Spiro leads an ensemble cast as PJ in the series from Sony Pictures Television and Pariah. The show is executive-produced by Gavin Polone (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Jamie Tarses and writer Betsy Thomas (Run of the House).

10 Items or Less is a partially improvised series about the workplace shenanigans that ensue when a struggling New York executive moves home to take over the family-owned supermarket after his father dies. The show stars John Lehr from the mockumentary Memron and is executive-produced by Lehr, Robert Hickey and Nancy Hower.—A.B.

Nielsen Back In New Orleans

Nielsen Media Research will resume ratings in the New Orleans market next February, the first time the ratings company will measure that market since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast last August.

Nielsen says it will use 300 participating households for a set-top meter and diary system, eventually building up to 400 households.Before the storm, New Orleans ranked as the 43rd-largest TV market, with about 672,000 TV homes.

Following the storm, hundreds of thousands of residents have left, and many are not expected to return. Nielsen, working with research firm Claritas, plans to release market estimates in September.—A.R.

Sweeney Joins B&C, NAB Lunch

Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and President of the Disney-ABC Television Group, will give the keynote at the NAB/Broadcasting & Cable TV Masters Luncheon April 25 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Las Vegas Hilton. Sweeney controls a high-flying group of broadcast and cable assets that have lately made headlines for their bold multiplatform programming deals.

Sweeney joins top-tier panelists Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media; Ric Harris, executive VP/general manager, Digital Media and Strategic Marketing, NBC Universal TV stations; Terry Mack, executive VP, Hearst-Argyle Television, and head of its digital media unit; Susana Schuler, Raycom Media VP of news; and Bill Hague, VP, Frank N. Magid Associates. These TV pros will discuss “Turning TV Content into Revenue.”

Tickets for the luncheon are $55 and are available via NAB's Web site at www.nabshow.com/tvmasters. For more information, call B&C's Sandy Friedman at 646-746-6740.

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