MCA, Viacom Gamble On Action Strips

Two top tv production companies are gambling big bucks that the schedules of independent stations – particularly non-Fox affiliates – need to be rescued a “She-Wolf” or a “Lightning Force.”

Viacom Enterprises and MCA Television are coming to NATPE this year to hawk slates of firstrun action-adventure shows. MCA is touting three new hourlong shows – “Shades Of Los Angeles,” “They Came From Outer Space” and “She-Wolf Of London.”

The three shows have been running on WWOR, the MCA-owned indie in New York, and KCOP Los Angeles, all of them finishing with mediocre ratings.

Viacom is trying a different tack – half-hour action-adventure shows. The company has already cleared two such shows, “The Adventures Of Superboy” and “Superforce,” and “Lightning Force” is Viacom’s half-hour offering for the fall. Another 30-minute firstrunner, “The Night Master,” is on the boards for ’92. It’s a “cross between ‘Kung Fu’ and James Bond,” says Viacom’s president for firstrun, Michael Gerber.

Of course, this raft of dramas has these syndicators hyping 1991 as The Year of the Action Show, but stations aren’t believing the hype – at least not yet. “The year of the gameshow or court show or whatever, that’s dictated what syndicators are selling,” says Janeen Bjork, vice president and head of programming for Seltel, a New York rep firm with a client list built largely of indie stations. “But it’s not because stations are saying this is the year of the action drama.”

“It’s not like we said, ‘If we had a firstrun action show, the world would be wonderful,'” says Herman Ramsey, general manager of WGNX, Tribune Co.’s non-Fox indie in Atlanta. “But it is an attempt to bring on some original programming. We would applaud that effort.”

Ramsey, who already runs movies six nights a week and is considering adding a seventh, isn’t sure that no matter how appealing the strip, he could put it on in primetime. But a firstrun action show is, he says, “something to talk about.”

The problem, he expects, would be MCA’s pricing on an all-cash deal. “I doubt seriously they can come in with a realistic price relative to advertiser support of those shows in my market,” Ramsey says.

Shelly Schwab, president of MCA Television, maintains the programming marketplace will force indies to believe in firstrun action-adventure.

“Stations have a need for this,” Schwab says. “If you look at the non-Fox indies, where is their programming going to come from? They are at a critical point. They don’t have access to the movie packages – they’re going to cable. They don’t have access to off-net hours – they’re going to cable. So we’re investing a great deal of money in this.

“If they’re not supportive of (projects like this,” he adds, “then obviously the message is not to produce this kind of product for independents. It’s an important time for them. If this is successful, not only will we stay in this business, it will encourage other studios to get into the business.” MCA is selling its shows on a cash basis only, Schwab says.

Viacom’s tack of producing half-hour action dramas for barter is designed for a big back-end pay-off. Gerber says Viacom is trying to build a two-hour weekend block of four shows that it can keep on the air, firstrun, for four seasons. Once that’s done, the company can sell the shows in daily strips. The half-hour format, he says, increases Viacom’s chances to sell strips. He also believes the shows can fill a unique niche in stations’ schedules.

“Sitcoms deliver [ratings], but there is a tremendous glut of sitcoms,” he says. “The reality is no one else has a block of high-concept half-hour action shows. It’s really counterprogramming.”

Still, these shows are risky ventures. Paramount, whose “Star Trek: The Next Generation” has become the godfather of firstrun-syndication action shows, backed out of continuing programming on two other firstrun action shows – “Friday The 13th” and “War Of The Worlds.” Paramount balked, according to Bjork, not for lack of station clearance but for lack of advertiser support. With ad markets depressed, action shows are an iffy proposition.

Drooling over overseas sales

One factor that makes the productions worth the gamble is potential sale in the international market. “The international sale is much stronger on action than on sitcoms,” says Bjork. “American humor doesn’t translate, but a car chase is a car chase and a murder is a murder. Drooling males like this stuff.” And drooling males age 25 to 54 are a good demographic regardless of nationality.

Viacom is finding that the international strategy works on its half-hour shows. “The action-adventure is the perfect kind of genre to sell overseas,” Gerber says. “We took a seven-minute ‘Superforce’ tape to Monte Carlo and sold 30 countries overseas on the spot.”

“Action-adventure shows also offer more potential for ancillary licensing and merchandising revenue,” Gerber adds. Viacom recently cut a deal with Galoob Toys for a line of toys based on “Superforce” characters.

None of these ideas will work, of course, if Viacom and MCA can’t make successful shows for American stations. “Superboy” and “Superforce” have performed relatively well for Viacom, but MCA’s shows remain untested on a widespread basis.

The question is what sort of ratings stations will settle for. If they’ll take fair ratings and be happy, these firstrun action shows may have a future, according to Bjork. If they want blockbuster numbers, however, MCA and Viacom may have to go back to the drawing board. “None of these,” Bjork says, “is another ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'”

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