Unaligneds' Fall Lines

Sony, Warner Bros. gird for first-run battle
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A month before anyone is supposed to officially care, first-run projects
are cropping up for fall 2006. So will it be business as usual as the next
selling season gets under way?

Well, that depends on your vantage point.

Since industry consolidation has left most major syndicators tied to big
station groups, little will change for them. Stations belonging to top-tier
groups will once again be able to dictate their programming needs to in-house
suppliers (like Paramount, King World, Disney and Twentieth) when
ill-performing shows open up holes in their schedules. The NBC O&Os have a
project in the wings with NBC Universal's syndication arm, which plans a talk
show with Will & Grace co-star Megan
Mullally for next year.

But the issue will be whether major independents like Warner Bros.
(including subsidiary Telepictures) and Sony Pictures Television can continue
to afford to produce big-budget shows without partnering with the station
groups belonging to ABC, CBS, NBC, Tribune and Fox.

Sony took the plunge last week, entering into a loose first-run alliance
with the Tribune stations. Warner Bros., which has unofficially been tied to
Tribune in the past, does business with a number of groups, including Fox.

With more and more distributors tied to broadcast groups, stations in
the secondary markets and beyond will have even less control over what goes on
their air now. It has become rare that stations outside the top markets can see
a pilot and offer input before a national roll-out.

Despite lacking group affiliations, Warner Bros. and Sony have
buttressed their first-run ledgers, thanks to Warner's diversification and
Sony's twin goldmines, Wheel of Fortune
and Jeopardy! (Sony produces, King World
distributes). Those shows minimize the damage from Sony failures like this
season's Pat Croce: Moving In and
Life & Style and the apparently failed
attempt to launch a Robin Quivers talk show this fall.

Although Warner Bros. struck out with Larry
this season, the syndicator hit pay dirt with
Ellen DeGeneres, which nimbly picked up the
valuable affiliate CPM mantle of Rosie
. Warner Bros. also has a spate of other shows, including
Extra and People's
returning this fall.

Supermodel Tyra Banks' talk show from Telepictures got the Fox
O&Os to break with their tradition of taking shows from outside studios
only on a straight-barter basis. With many in-house failures dotting its
schedule, Fox took the Banks show for fall on a cash-plus-barter basis,
although industry sources speculate that its estimated $450,000-$500,000 weekly
production costs far outweigh a paltry license fee the studio will get from the
Fox O&Os. (Telepictures will likely try to make the costs up

That is the sort of risk that unaligned studios like Warner Bros. and
Sony have had to take to stay on the first-run playing field.