Firstrun hours cut in on pix packs

The advent of high-concept first-run action hours in syndication such as “Deep Space 9,””The Untouchables” and “Time Trax,” all of which kick off this month, could spell trouble for distributors of theatrical-movie packages.

“If these series work in the ratings, it’ll end up reducing the number of station players who buy movies,” says John Rohr, VP and director of programming for rep firm Blair TV.

Ritch Colbert, senior executive VP for the movie syndicator ITC Entertainment , calls it “classic supply and demand.” The main purchasers of syndicated movie packages in the last few years are independent TV stations not affiliated with the Fox network, whichstrip movies in prime time to counterprogram the heavy menu of series fare on the networks.

But these indies are also the main clients for the firstrun hours because network affils are still reluctant to preempt their networks in prime time on a weekly basis.

“There’s only a finite amount of shelf space” on the non-Fox indies, says Scott Carlin, senior VP of sales for Warner Bros.’ domestic-TV division. Carlin acknowledges that if “Time Trax” and “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues,” the two WB entries in the firstrun sweepstakes, become hits in prime time, the indies would have one less night for movies.

But Jack Smith, senior VP of marketing and research for MGM TV, says, “TV stations can make more money playing movies because the distributors of firstrun series will take at least six minutes an hour of the stations’ time.”

Stations pay cash for most movie packages, although the package distributor often insists on bartering the first of the seven runs accorded to the stations for each picture in the bundle. (Typically, the distrib will carve out 12 national minutes within that first two-hour run.) The six subsequent cash runs, free of barter, will funnel all the advertising revenues into the stations’ pocket.

And prices for movies have moderated considerably over the years. “We’re never going to go back to days of the mid-’80s,” says Jim Curtin, VP of programming for TV rep firm HRP, “when bidding wars between independent TV stations in the big markets drove the prices of movie packages through the roof.”

The main reason for this price decline, Curtin says, is that one big movie-package client in every market stopped buying pictures when the Fox network signed that client–an independent TV station–as an affiliate and started filling the station’s prime time schedule with weekly network series.

Los Angeles is a prime example of the falloff in movie prices. Until five years ago, four L.A. indies engaged in no-holds-barred competition to get movies , causing some major studio packages to command a price as high as $ 450,000 a title.

Now, only two of the four L.A. indies–KCOP and KTLA–run prime time movies. KTTV, the Fox O&O, gets its prime time programs from the network, and KCAL is all news from 8 to 11 p.m. With demand cut in half, even movie packages stuffed with A titles are lucky to fetch only $ 250,000 a title.

When syndication prices plunged, the distributors began a raging love affair with the USA cable network, which ponied up an average of $ 2 million a title in 1989 and 1990 for packages from Paramount and MCA (the joint owners of USA) and from 20th Century Fox and Buena Vista.

“Basic cable became a relief valve for the major studios,” says Blair’s Rohr. USA hasn’t bought any other big packages in more than two years because it has a full shelf of theatrical titles. But a number of the movies in USA’s inventory are just now making their way to the network’s schedule, and if the ratings are strong, USA will probably go back into a buying mode.

A source at USA says the network is looking at a proposed new Warner Bros. package that includes such titles as “Batman Returns,””Lethal Weapon 3” and “JFK.” But he says Warners is also sounding out TV stations, and may do a deal that would funnel the pictures simultaneously to cable and syndication.

Whether the package goes exclusively to syndication, exclusively to a basic-cable network or, non-exclusively, to some combination of both, Ed Bleier, president of Warner Bros.’ pay-TV and network features division, says the company is guided by one overriding rule of thumb: “Whoever bids the highest gets the movies.”

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