Warners pondering fifth web

Warner Bros. is the latest name to surface in the race to establish a fifth network.

Insiders say the studio is exploring the feasibility of starting a new web, with a number of options still on the table concerning the shape of the network, its funding and potential partners.

WB is clearly a believer in software, with 15 series on the fall schedules of the three networks and Fox Broadcasting Co. parent1Time Warner owning additional shows produced through Witt-Thomas Inc. and HBO Independent Prods.

Although many in the industry question the business sense of such a move and appear skeptical that WB — or anyone else — will ever get a fifth network off the ground, studio sources confirm that such a plan is under serious consideration.

A WB spokeswoman declined to comment. But, according to one report, the studio has recruited former Fox Broadcasting prez Jamie Kellner to head the venture.

The concept of a fifth network has been floating around ever since Time Warner formed a local origination channel on a cable system in Rochester, N.Y., a few years ago.

There was also speculation when the studio recently merged its two network production arms into one megasupplier that former Warner Bros. TV prez Harvey Shephard may have been asked to work on the fifth network.

He said at the time his division was shut down that he’d been offered an unspecified position within the company, but opted instead for his current independent production deal with the studio.

Rumors of WB’s renewed interest intensified this week following speculation that Paramount and the Chris-Craft/United station group may look at a similar scheme (Daily Variety, Aug. 19-20).

WB and Chris-Craft are already partners on the Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN), a two-hour block of syndicated fare that is expanding to a second night in mid-January.

If Chris-Craft winds up with Par, the most likely partnership candidate for WB would be the Tribune Broadcasting station group.

Independent core

Trib could use its independent stations in the nation’s biggest TV markets as the core of the web, much as Fox Broadcasting has done with the parent company’s owned stations.

But a pairing with Trib would mean that WB has to build its network from scratch, since the studio is already in business with the rival Chris-Craft station group in PTEN. Even the PTEN operation is a financially tricky one for WB.

The ad-hoc network ran into difficulty when the studio was forced to let stations out of their back-end commitments for the series “Time Trax” and “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.”

Stations demanded the concession in exchange for adding a second night that will include “Babylon Five,” a sci-fi series piloted last year as a two-hour movie, and now WB is reportedly considering selling the reruns to a cable network.

As to the shape a more ambitious WB network would take, one possibility mentioned is a joint broadcast-cable venture, perhaps in conjunction with the nation’s leading cable system operator, Tele-Communications Inc.

The broadcast portion of the web would cover only about the top-30 markets, which reach roughly 65% of the country. In the remaining 35% of the U.S., all the stations are either affiliated with one of the Big Three networks or Fox.

Local links

Between parent Time Warner’s cable systems and TCI — which has been mentioned in other fifth network scenarios — a new network could get a toehold in a number of smaller markets via local origination channels and convince other cable operators to go along.

Still, most cable systems cover just 60% of each market and attract minuscule ratings.

If WB could set up a network of local origination channels that would need programming for the entire day, sources said it would be a major boon for the entire syndication industry.

Another idea, according to industry sources, would be to offer shows in pattern in 65% of the country during the week. Stations in the remainder of the country could air them on weekends.

But that could prove difficult, since the weekends are already crowded with a glut of syndie action hours. And there are more on the way.

Besides three Paramount series (two from the “Star Trek” legacy and “The Untouchables”), other players include “Highlander,””Baywatch” and “Renegade,” with additional entries like “Robocop: The Series” and “Universal Action Network”– a wheel of weekly two-hour action pix — in the wings.

Sources said WB could also propose an ad-hoc network in which stations in a large portion of the country would pay cash license fees to underwrite original programming.

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