If At First You Don't Succeed

Suitors already pitching game and talk replacements

Fox's My Network TV has quickly been inundated with pitches from game- and talk-show producers who want to get a foot in the door in case My Network TV's initial soap strategy fails.

Low-cost ideas have flooded into Twentieth Television since the Fox syndication unit made the creative community aware it was looking for ways to fill the two-hour, six-day prime time programming block.

Twentieth discovered less than two weeks ago that it would become My Network TV's primary production unit.

A potential candidate to contribute to the new outlet, comedian David Alan Grier, is readying a pilot for Fox for either a prime time sketch comedy series or a late-night strip. But that project could be shifted to My Network TV, either as a prime time or late-night strip.

Hollywood's opinion about My Network TV, which launches Sept. 5 with Twentieth's telenovelas Desire and Secrets, is simple. Says an agent who asked not to be identified, “It's viable, has guaranteed clearances, and their checks cash.”

The two low-cost, English-language translations of popular Spanish-language telenovelas, initially earmarked for first-run syndication, will appear as 65-episode story arcs for 13 weeks. If they don't catch on with viewers, My Network TV has made it clear they will quickly jettison them. But Roger Ailes, who not only runs Fox News Channel (FNC) but is chairman of the TV-station division, is comfortable with strip shows. Programs like FNC's The O'Reilly Factor helped make it the most-watched cable news network.

Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy declines to discuss My Network TV's finances, which could also benefit the company with additional international revenue and higher prime time ad rates than they'd get with reruns or additional runs of syndicated shows.

My Network TV offers opportunities for show producers, but its existence may dishearten syndicators. They hoped the 100 or so UPN and WB affiliates orphaned by The CW would become traditional independents that would need syndicated product. My Network TV gives stations an alternative route.

Industry estimates peg costs for Desire and Secrets at around $500,000-$600,000 per week, less than half the cost of the average $1.3 million for a typical, one-hour daytime network soap.

A CW insider disparages the low-cost programming approach, but Fox trumpets its ability to get high production values at a reasonable price. Produced in San Diego on sets constructed by Twentieth, the soaps will have five-day runs and a Saturday recap version.

“We're going to make it very easy for someone to jump into it midway through,” Abernethy says. “These are high-quality programs, and we're excited for them to lead the network.”

Fox's Tribes in the early 1990s and Rituals, produced by Warner Bros. in the 1984-85 season for the Metromedia stations (subsequently acquired by Fox), flopped.

Fox knows it usually takes years to get soaps up and running, allowing them to build viewers and recoup their investments. The announcement of My Network TV's initial all-soap strategy also noted that Twentieth is “aggressively developing” other reality, drama, comedy, game, news, movies and talk.

Abernethy emphasizes My Network TV has readied a “full slate of development if one show fails.”

The list includes the supermodel-search show Catwalk from Twentieth and Granada America's Celebrity Love Island, in which a civilian looking for romance is hooked up with a star to see if sparks ignite.

Also in the hopper is a crime-investigation show produced by Fox News; a U.K.-inspired quiz show called America's Brainiest from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire producer Celador; and another internationally formatted series under negotiation with American Idol producer FremantleMedia North America.

The production slate suggests to some high-level studio executives that the prime time block will be limited primarily to Fox and smaller, low-cost producers.

But others see Warner Bros.' reality unit, Telepictures Productions, and other major syndication units eventually jumping on board. When there's demand, in Hollywood, supply is just around the corner.