Fast Track - Broadcasting & Cable

Fast Track

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Starz Media President of Distribution and Marketing Neil Braun (Fifth Estater, 5/14, p. 28) will oversee TV-related distribution and licensing for live-action films from Liberty's Overture Films, as well as those from Starz Animation's theatrical distribution deal with Fox. Overture does not have any deals in place with Fox.

CBS Paramount Supplies the Demand

By Jim Benson

Studio edges longtime leader WBTV as top provider

CBS Paramount Network Television won the Hollywood-studio numbers game last week, landing 24 shows on next season's broadcast schedule—one more than the longtime leading supplier, Warner Bros. Television (WBTV).

The in-house CBS studio doubled new-series orders from four to eight, with CBS and sibling The CW increasing their orders this year. But including co-productions and, for the first time, reality shows like Survivor in the count put it over the top.

WBTV President Peter Roth argues that winning bragging rights is no longer important: "I'm not even keeping count anymore."

What matters, he says, is a "compelling" development slate with series that have long-term potential, like Warner Bros.' Terminator-inspired The Sarah Connor Chronicles at Fox.

Roth's low-budget producer Warner Horizon TV got four network pickups in its first year, including a second season for The CW reality hit Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll.

Networks have been ordering more reality to reduce costs and as contingency in case of a writers' strike next season. Of the 40 new series ordered by the networks for next season, including 22 dramas and 11 comedies, seven were unscripted.

In a hopeful sign, Warner Bros. had seven shows from 2003-04 renewed, allowing the series to get closer to off-net syndication. Three others—ABC's Men in Trees and Notes From the Underbelly and CBS' New Adventures of Old Christine—will return for a second season.

ABC Studios President Mark Pedowitz touted renewal orders for rookies October Road, Ugly Betty and Brothers & Sisters.

Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which had some expensive failures this season, including NBC's Kidnapped, saw freshman pickups for Fox's 'Til Death and CBS' Rules of Engagement. The independent studio also sold four of eight broadcast-network pilots—three scripted and one reality—giving it a 50% conversion rate versus about a third or less for other studios.

SPT's Viva Laughlin went to CBS after a multi-network bidding war. SPT Co-Presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg say the network clinched the deal because CBS Paramount already had a TV pact in place with Hugh Jackman, who will executive-produce and appear in a recurring role in the co-produced series.

Others weren't as lucky. And now, beyond the usual heated license-fee battles with networks, studio executives are worried about seeing a repeat of last season, when a glut of dramas overwhelmed viewers.

Regency TV President Robin Schwartz, who landed a comedy and drama on Fox, isn't wasting time in rounding up drama writers, many of whom are under contract to the big studios.

"We're competing in a thin talent pool," she says. "You have to be fast and aggressive. We will be staffed by the end of the week."

If viewers flee again, the studios could rack up tremendous deficits. Dramas average $2.5 million per episode, compared with single- and multi-camera comedies at $1.5 million and $1.1 million, respectively.

While international sales, DVD sales and electronic downloads help, the ancillary revenue is not always enough. With 84% of network shows failing, some industry executives privately admit they can get better odds playing roulette in Las Vegas.

To even the odds a bit, says 20th Century Fox TV Co-President Gary Newman, the studio tried more experimental development this year, including two five-minute presentations rather than full-blown pilots.

The studio garnered seven new-series commitments, including an early pickup for Back to You at Fox and getting Journeyman slotted behind NBC's hit Heroes. Although those two came out of traditional development, that won't stop 20th from experimenting again next year, Newman says.

NBC Universal Television Studio (NUTS), which got orders for three of six drama pilots—including the remake of Bionic Woman—and only one of eight comedy pilots, saved money by giving up rights to the CW pilot Aliens in America. CBS Paramount and Warner Bros. now produce it.

ABC News Staffers Killed in Iraq

Two ABC News staffers were killed in Iraq May 17, ABC News President David Westin said last week.

Cameraman Alaa Uldeen Aziz, 33, and soundman Saif Laith Yousuf, 26, were on their way home from work at the ABC Baghdad bureau when they were ambushed and murdered after being forced out of their car by unknown assailants, ABC said.

Westin announced the deaths to the news division in an e-mail Friday morning. "Our hearts go out to their families and friends. They will be deeply missed by their colleagues in Baghdad and by all of us in the ABC News family," he said.

Aziz had a wife and two daughters. Yousuf leaves behind a fiancée, mother, brothers and sisters.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says the number of journalists who have died in Iraq since the war began totals 104.—John Eggerton

Nexstar, LIN Shop Stations

Two station groups have hired prominent Wall Street firms to explore a sale.

Nexstar Broadcasting Group says it has hired Goldman Sachs to "look into strategic alternatives," including selling its 49 stations. Share values soared to a three-year high on the announcement; at press time, the stock price rose over $13.

Bear Stearns upgraded Nexstar's rating to outperform; analyst Victor Miller estimated the sale price at $15-$20.

Earlier this month, Nexstar posted first-quarter net revenue of $62.1 million, up 3.7%. Analysts expect Nexstar to sell the entire group to a sole buyer for tax reasons, likely a private-equity group.

Meanwhile, LIN Television has hired J.P. Morgan to explore "strategic alternatives," including a possible sale of the company. LIN, which owns or operates 29 TV stations, said it made $20.7 million in first quarter 2007, versus a $4.3 million loss in the same quarter 2006. —John Eggerton

Discovery Closes Stores

Discovery Communications will close its 103 stores by the third quarter to concentrate its retail efforts online and in partnerships.

The move, long speculated by analysts as a cost-cutting measure, will affect about 1,000 employees, or 25% of Discovery's workforce, the company says.

Under new President/CEO David Zaslav, Discovery has cut costs throughout the company to grow elsewhere.

In an initial round of layoffs, 250 people were let go across the company's stable of cable networks and its international departments.—Anne Becker

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