Warner Bros. casts net

Warner Bros. officially joined the TV network derby Tuesday, announcing an ambitious rollout schedule for its proposed fifth network that will take the weblet from two hours next summer to seven nights a week by 1998.

WB Network chief exec Jamie Kellner, studio chairman-CEO Robert Daly and exec VP Barry Meyer detailed plans for the Tribune Broadcasting-anchored weblet — which will appeal to the 18-49 demographic — at a morning press conference in Burbank attended by many of the affiliates that have signed on.

“A national distribution outlet not only complements our current television operations but also gives us the opportunity to profit from the original broadcast of programs,” Daly said, lamenting the huge deficits involved with the programs the leading network supplier provides to the webs.

But backers of Paramount and Chris-Craft’s fifth network plan (Daily Variety, Oct. 27), which will anchor their web with the spinoff “Star Trek: Voyager,” say the race to create the nation’s fifth and, most likely, final web is far from over. Conventional wisdom says there’s only room for one more network.

WB Net has yet to announce what its programming will be.

Par net backers said they are close to signing major affiliates in the 20th to 70th largest markets — deals that would give them the advantage.

Neither group, however, has secured commitments yet from the three key station groups: Sinclair Broadcasting, Clear Channel and River City, which control big single-indie markets that both WB and Par will need in order to succeed.

WB has lined up 11 station groups, led by Gaylord and Tribune Broadcasting, which has committed all of its major market outlets except for its Chicago flagship superstation, WGN.

WGN-TV, with its heavy sports commitments, will clear the service during the first year when it is at only two nights. But the group is hopeful that WB will sign one of the two indie alternates in the market, WPWR orthe weaker Combined Broadcasting station, WGBO-TV.

Trib opted to go with WB — despite a “reverse compensation” plan reportedly requiring affiliates to hand over as much as 25% of the incremental revenue increases brought about by higher ratings — because it believes that WB has a better plan than Par, said Trib TV president Dennis FitzSimons.

“When you look into the 200-channel, the 500-channel universe, you have to have a franchise,” said Tribune Broadcasting prez-CEO Jim Dowdle, who questioned the long-term viability of his station group’s two primary primetime franchises, movies and sports.

WB claims the remaining groups — which include Pacific FM Inc., Gannett Broadcasting, Renaissance Communications, Meredith Broadcasting, Press Broadcasting, Act III Broadcasting, Pappas Telecasting and Lambert Television — represent coverage in 40% of the country.

Figures disputed

Par/Chris-Craft supporters, however, say that not all the stations in those groups have committed to the venture, with the actual WB Network clearance level closer to 33% of the U.S. (which compares to 27% for the Chris-Craft and Par stations).

Moreover, the competing network is insisting that many of the stations that have signed on for WB had no other choice; they are in markets that overlap with Par and Chris-Craft stations.

In fact, they say, a few of those trumpeted at the press conference haven’t committed at all — which WB disputes.

Kellner, the former Fox Broadcasting president who holds an unspecified minority ownership stake in the WB Network he has engineered, is hoping to launch the weblet (which will rely heavily on mascot Bugs Bunny as its guiding force) with 85% household coverage.

Broadcast stations would comprise 75%, while a cable network dubbed WEB would make up the remaining 10%. That component of the network will consist of cable channels created by roughly 50 Big Three network and Fox affiliates in “white areas” of the country where there are no independent stations available.

Affiliates and cable systems would split the revenue generated in those markets, providing WB with the “in-pattern” coverage required by national advertisers. (See related story, this page.)

WEB’s launch will be concurrent with WB Net, eventually offering programming seven days weekly from 6 a.m.-1 a.m., including simulcasting the entire WB sked by fall 1995.

In the first year, however, the cable stations would offer four hours of WB debut primetime programs on weekends and in fringe time periods.

Kellner said that while no major multiple system operators have committed to the project — except perhaps the nation’s second largest MSO, Time Warner, which helped create it — many have expressed encouragement.

Daly said he is confident the network, which will draw programming from the WB production factory as well as outside suppliers such as Paramount, will break even in year four and turn a profit by year five. WB still intends to be a major supplier to the other networks, he noted.

Kellner declined to identify any of the primetime series involved in the weblet, other than to note it would have a half-hour comedy strip that could air in the 10-11 p.m. hour along the lines of “Fernwood Tonight” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

WB is waiting to see how the primetime landscape looks before deciding on which night it will launch the weblet, but Kellner said Wednesdays “look interesting.”

Kellner’s familiar plans

As he did at Fox, Kellner intends to use the summer as a primetime launching pad to get its shows sampling when the networks are in reruns.

The pace of WB’s primetime rollout will consist of a second night in January 1995, two additional nights in summer 1995 and another night in each of the subsequent three years.

WB is also looking at other dayparts, which Kellner said are critical to the network’s success.

Its goal is to create animated programming blocks on weekday mornings, afternoons and Saturday mornings — with producer Steven Spielberg expressing interest in continuing his participation that began with WB’s involvement at Fox — an off-net sitcom hour prior to the hour leading into the valuable 6-8 p.m. early fringe block, as well as a noon-2 p.m. afternoon off-net drama and talk block.

Plans call for the 7-9 a.m. kids shows and early afternoon fare to begin in 1995, along with one afternoon animation strip and the late prime strip.

In 1996, WB is looking to add a second kidvid strip and its first 5-5:30 p.m. sitcom.

Par also intends to program for other dayparts but doesn’t intend to be involved in as many areas.

Its strategy is “very specific” and primarily targeted at primetime, which is the daypart “that has the most impact on stations’ bottom lines,” said a Par backer.

Par officials, meanwhile, are privately criticizing WB for failing to disclose any of its primetime programming for the network, which it will have to develop and get on the air in less than a year to stay on schedule.

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