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WB, Disney, MCA aim for firstruns

Warner Bros., Disney and MCA are about to enter a brave new world at this week’s National Assn. of Television Program Executives confab.

The three majors are seeking to make a name for themselves in a business that has so far been difficult for them to crack: the firstrun strip arena.

None of these studios have had much luck over the years with developing successful strips in-house.

The Disney syndie wing Buena Vista Television, for instance, has one of the strongest talkshows around, “Live With Regis & Kathie Lee,” but that was already a success in New York before it went into the station marketplace.

Then again, Columbia had been a non-player in the five-day-a-week game until this season, when it launched the freshman talk hit “The Ricki Lake Show.” Encouraged by its newfound status in the firstrun business, Col appears poised to unveil other original projects at NATPE.

WB, BVTV and MCA TV are hoping that they, too, can make some inroads in the field.

The trio is coming to NATPE with its most ambitious slate of firstrun projects ever — a commitment spurred by such factors as the improving economy, new opportunities in latenight and daytime, and independent TV stations making the transition from movies to firstrun action hours in primetime.

And while there are no guarantees that any of their programs will be a success, most at least stand a decent chance of getting launched.

WB, attempting to capitalize on the “synergy” that exists between the studio and parent Time Warner’s publishing assets, is the only one willing to take on the dominant firstrun syndicators in the 7-8 p.m. access block.

The studio’s ambitious “Entertainment News Television” project is an entertainment newsmag that will use the various T-W publications as information sources.

It will be vying in a high-stakes battle against such established entrants as King World’s “Wheel of Fortune,””Jeopardy!,””Inside Edition” and “American Journal,” Paramount’s “Entertainment Tonight” and “Hard Copy” and Twentieth TV’s “A Current Affair.”

BVTV, meanwhile, is sticking with the chat genre — sort of. “Judge & Jury,” an hour hybrid court-talk strip in which a jury will debate in a “court of public opinion,” is competing for clearances against Group W’s half-hour reality strip “Jones & Jury” (with former NBC legal analyst Star Jones hosting a legally binding court show with a studio audience).

Then there’s MCA TV. The syndicator’s NATPE offerings include two adult strips, “The Suzanne Somers Show” for daytime and producer Brandon Tartikoff’s light news show “Last Call” for latenight. And on the kiddie side, MCA has the animated strip “Exo Squad.”

Add to that its weekly young adult newsmag series “Time to Generate” (formerly “Generation X”) and the new weekly animated show “Monster Force.”

If the five new series were not enough, MCA also will likely use NATPE to feel out stations about potential weekly action series candidates for next January. The first of the rotating “Universal Action Pack” telepix, William Shatner’s “Tek War,” premiered last week to strong ratings in the metered markets.

For a company that has yet to launch even one successful strip, the sheer number of projects being rolled out at once is staggering.

Syndicators, including giants such as KW and Par, usually put a number of projects into development but opt to take out only one major project each season.

MCA TV prez Shelly Schwab acknowledges that his sales force faces a somewhat daunting task.

“It’s tough to sell that many shows at one time,” he says.

Complicating matters, MCA got off to a late start selling its shows. Like many other syndicators, its sales force had difficulty getting in to see general managers in September and October because they were preoccupied by retransmission consent and the competing fifth-network proposals.

Then came the November sweeps and the holidays, leaving syndicators out in the cold until this month.

Schwab says this NATPE will be an important selling convention for MCA. Despite the difficulty of keeping track of so many projects, he believes the company can succeed.

But the big question is why so many shows at one time? According to Schwab, opportunities such as this don’t come along every day.

Although there are many talkshows, he says not that many are working well.

In latenight, Fox, CBS and ABC affiliates are up for grabs. And indie stations, which are being wooed by both Par and WB for their fifth networks, will need primetime fare to fill out the rest of their weeknights until the programming services expand.

Whether MCA, BVTV and WB can convert opportunities into success remains to be seen. If they do, however, next year’s NATPE will no longer be just a two- or three-man firstrun race.

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