Warner Bros. Friday confirmed that Tribune’s Chicago flagship superstation WGN will provide its national basic cable feed for the studio’s proposed fifth network (Daily Variety, Nov. 29) — a move that WB insists will guarantee its launch.
The hybrid broadcast-cable WB Net is offering exclusivity to all of its existing and future broadcast affiliates, as well as any future cable affiliates who dedicate channel space to the venture, by starting a second national feed of WGN.
With the addition of the superstation, the WB Network will be able to reach at least a portion of 210 out of 211 markets nationwide.
Outside of Chicago, WGN reaches segments of markets that cover 37% of the country. WB already has 42% coverage with its broadcast affiliates, compared to 38% for the rival Paramount/Chris-Craft network (which has been winning key head-to-head battles for station groups).
Because of the exclusivity provision, WB says the weblet now covers at least 73% of the country.
Although WGN currently reaches only a portion of the markets that it is in, WB Network officials assert the primetime fare it offers will boost the value of the station.
That, they hope, will convince more cable operators to pick up the Chicago station’s feed and offer WGN premium channel positions — making the weblet more economically viable.
WB Friday also announced that, as expected, WGN has committed to carry the weblet in Chicago (Daily Variety, Dec. 1) — at least until it starts interfering with the station’s heavy sports commitments.
One exec for Tribune, which has already committed its other stations to WB, estimated the length of the commitment would be up to three years. And WB has also signed KLGT-TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul and WMCC in Indianapolis to its lineup — both weak UHF stations in markets where the Par Net already has affiliates.
Jamie Kellner, chief exec of the WB Network, has vowed to keep signing up broadcast affiliates despite the arrangement with WGN.
The addition of the superstation”allows WB the long-term flexibility of building a dedicated, in-pattern distribution system … and assures us of national coverage that cannot be duplicated or surpassed by anyone outside the current four networks,” says Kellner.
WB officials have often criticized the Par Net because it is being offered to stations on an ad-hoc basis, which would permit the broadcasters to run its programs out of pattern. They’ve also alleged that Par is making deals so generous for stations that its weblet will not be cost-effective, which Par officials deny.
Par is betting that by signing on strong broadcast stations, its ratings will be so strong that its collection of stations will eventually start looking like an actual network.
The hope appears to be that, in the event that QVC chairman Barry Diller wins his battle for Par, he will be handed a network on a silver platter and change his mind about scrapping the venture and selling off the studio’s stations.
Should both Par and WB launch networks, Par officials say they will get higher rates from national advertisers than WB, even with the ad-hoc arrangements.
But Kellner is pledging that WB “will help grow television and cable stations in every (market) and someday we will have a powerful network.”
He compared the WB Network to Fox Broadcasting, which started with a string of weak UHF indies. He says that Fox “proved that network quality programming will, over a period of years, build immature television stations into contenders.”
Unless WB succeeds with its plan to build up the poorly rated WGN and weaker UHF stations in many markets, and gain wide acceptance from cable operators for WGN, broadcasters say the studio could have a rough ride.
“If they’re only getting a 2.6 national rating and it cost $ 1.2 million to produce shows, they can’t go ahead,” says one TV group exec.
WB officials, however, have said the studio is willing to deficit-finance the network in its first few years.