Murdoch’s Next Bet

MyNetworkTV is set on risky programming scheme

When News Corp. launches My Network TV (MNT) on Sept. 5, the company will be taking a hefty programming gamble. The netlet will go all-in on a concept never before tried on American television: offering low-cost, limited-run, hour-long nightly soaps based on Spanish-language telenovelas but performed in English.

It’s a bold move, but Rupert Murdoch, News Corp.’s high-rolling chairman/CEO, believes this will give his new venture the best odds of competing against more-expensive, heavily hyped fare on the Big Four networks—including sister network Fox.

Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy, part of the MNT brain trust, believes MyNetworkTV has come far in the seven months since CBS and Warner Bros. surprised the industry by announcing they would fold UPN and The WB into one brand-new channel, The CW. Fox started MNT largely to create programming for nine News Corp.-owned UPN outlets that were suddenly orphaned; it launches next month with 167 affiliates covering 96% of the nation.

“Our biggest challenge has been making the most use of the time we’ve had,” Abernethy says. “If I had to do it again, I would speed up production.”

Programming has been a huge order for Twentieth Television, the Fox syndication division that has spearheaded MNT. It is in various stages of producing six of the telenovelas at a large factory-like studio in San Diego, with two more concepts in development. Each telenovela will be spun out over 13 weeks.

At first, MNT planned alternatives in case the telenovela idea tanked, but Abernethy and his boss, Fox News chief and Chairman of Fox Television Stations Group Roger Ailes, ultimately scrapped that idea.

“Our [promotional and business] model is dependent on us sticking with this genre,” Abernethy says. “If we need to fix things, we will do [the telenovelas] until they eventually work.”

That could be tough. Twentieth has already completed production on its first two primetime soaps, Desire and Fashion House (see box), and is shooting the next pair, Art of Betrayal and Watch Over Me, slated to debut in December. That means that changes to the concepts, whether small or wholesale, will have to happen on the fly.

“It will be more difficult to that extent,” Abernethy says. “But that is what we intend to do.”

National advertisers will watch those debut numbers closely. “Everything is dependent on the first set of telenovelas,” says Shari Anne Brill, VP/director of the programming division of Carat USA media agency, New York. She has her concerns.

“With the daytime soaps, if you miss a couple of weeks, they’re so slow paced that you’re maybe missing five minutes of the characters’ lives,” she explains. “These [primetime soaps] are so quick, I don’t know how the viewers are going to catch up.”

But Twentieth research concludes that viewers need to watch its series only three times a week to keep up. Anyhow, the network will offer recaps on Saturdays.

Still, many media buyers have been reluctant to commit much to MNT, because, if a telenovela fails, they wouldn’t be very excited to get make-good spots in another drama of the same ilk.

Abernethy blames the slow national ad sales on the sluggish upfronts and the newness of the concept, although many national advertisers consider MyNetwork TV a syndicated programming service and are known to be paying lower rates than network shows normally get. MNT argues that it is a network because its shows will run in pattern—that is, in the same time periods nationwide.

That won’t always be the case. The six-night-a-week primetime-strip business poses problems in markets where affiliates will frequently preempt programming for sports, pushing ads out of prime. Affiliate agreements are believed to contain provisions specifying that programming must run immediately after the events or at least after the evening local newscasts.

Some have pegged MyNetworkTV’s national take so far at $40 million-$50 million, far below its higher-than-expected programming costs stemming from having to pay union wages (including a settlement in the works with the Writers Guild of America, west, to cover those who translate and enhance the Spanish-language telenovela scripts).

Although declining to be specific, Abernethy notes that local sales at Fox-owned stations are bolstering the overall number. “We have done very well, even exceeded expectations,” he says, “since there is far more local than national inventory.”

MNT is launching with a lean management infrastructure in place, relying on Twentieth to handle all the functions. The lack of a clear line of authority at the top, with Twentieth TV President Bob Cook, Abernethy and Ailes all making key strategic decisions, has confused some.

Once it’s on the air, however, Abernethy intends to put “a more formal structure” in place. For now, Twentieth has divided itself into network and syndication teams, with the MNT group headed by Paul Franklin, executive VP/sales manager.

Abernethy thinks the lack of a staff is an advantage in some ways because it shows the strength of News Corp.’s various assets. In contrast, when the Fox network was established two decades ago, it had a small staff that grew with time.

MyNetworkTV, of course, is hoping to be around 20 years from now to compare staff sizes.