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FOX DASHES TO TUPELO

Somewhere over rural Texas, Fox executive Adam Ware gazed out the window of the News Corp. jet and remarked “that’s where the war is being fought.”

The war he was referring to is the ongoing competition for affiliates among networks across the country. It is a battle Fox started last year and continues to wage each day in small markets across the country. Ware, a senior vice president of Fox’s network distribution, is on his way to Tupelo, Miss., where the weblet has signed on a new affiliate. With him is Fox talent Gabrielle Carteris, of “Beverly Hills 90210” and now host of her own daytime talk show; Paula Devicq of “Party of Five,” Kristin Davis from “Melrose Place” and this reporter. The others in the group are representing Fox and News Corp. at a bash to welcome WLOV Tupelo to the weblet’s family.

Although Tupelo is only market 132 and probably best known as the birth place of Elvis Presley, Fox treats it as if it is a top 10 market, for good reason. Even though it’s a small station, the way Fox announced the affiliation deal took the industry by storm and upset ABC, which had been affiliated with WLOV for over 10 years.

At the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention last April, Fox and News Corp. topper Rupert Murdoch declared from a podium that the weblet was close to signing a new affil. With the industry still reeling from Fox’s stunning deal with New World Communications as well as several other new affiliate deals the weblet had inked, reporters and industry execs scrambled to find out what the station was and which network had lost.

ABC was not pleased with the defection of WLOV, to say the least. Making matters worse, one month earlier Fox bought WHBQ Memphis, which was ABC’s affiliate in the nation’s 42nd market and the closest big city to Tupelo. Now the Alphabet web was seeing its coverage in the state cut dramatically at the hands of Fox.

On top of that, Fox has now snagged ABC affiliates throughout the south including stations in New Orleans, Biloxi, Miss., Birmingham, Ala. and Monroe, La.

Indeed, as recently as last week, CapCities/ABC chairman Tom Murphy told PBS talker Charlie Rose that Murdoch has cost ABC an additional $60 million in affiliate compensation.

For Mark Ledbetter, general manager of WLOV, the switch to Fox was not a hard decision to make. “Our ABC numbers had been flat since about 1985,” Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter is clearly not the ideal Fox demographic. But the silver-haired former news-anchor-turned-station-exec also knows he is not anyone else’s demo prototype.

“I don’t program for my own tastes,” Ledbetter explains.

Ledbetter is eager to affiliate with Fox and sell more ad time, although the actual switch is still weeks away. ABC is playing hardball with the tiny station and won’t let it out of its affiliation agreement early. That means WLOV won’t be able to carry the season premieres of many new Fox shows in pattern, .

Meanwhile, at the event, attendance is roughly 300 – a little less than what WLOV and Fox had hoped for. Most of the attendees are advertisers, although a few local dignitaries have shown up, including the mayor of Tupelo and city council members from neighboring cities.

Also on hand are Fox station managers from surrounding markets who are there to reassure Ledbetter that he is making the right decision. Some have driven hundreds of miles to be at the event.

The July sweeps numbers for New World are reassuring to WLOV. The nine New World TV stations that have switched affiliation to Fox gain a collective 21% from a year ago in primetime ratings among adults 18-34 (4.7 vs. 3.9) in the July sweeps, according to Nielsen Media Research. Shares for the New World stations are up 25% in the 18-34 demos (15 vs. 12).

Prior to WLOV’s secondary affiliation pact, Fox programming was only available to the market via cable. Even with the secondary agreement, many local residents still have not had a real taste of the network.

One of those local residents is Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association and thorn in the side of networks who dare to show flesh or violence in their shows. WLOV was one of dozens of ABC affiliates that has never carried an episode of “NYPD Blue,” a show that Wildmon railed against.

So how will Wildmon react to Fox, which admittedly has some raunchy programming? Ledbetter knows Wildmon and said he is working with the conservative activist to insure a peaceful coexistence.

“Don never asked me not to run ‘NYPD Blue,’ Ledbetter said. And as for Fox, Wildmon has not said anything negative about the switch.

In the meantime, Fox execs continue to crisscross the country hitting every small market where they don’t have an affiliate.

Although Ledbetter is wowed by Fox’s efforts to make him feel comfortable, he won’t be a pushover as an affiliate. He, like other Fox affils, is concerned about the performance of National Hockey League games-; and he is also a secondary affiliate of United Paramount Network.

Outside the event, one attendee remarked she had never watched any Fox programming. When asked what she did watch, the Tupelo native replied “mostly the Discovery Channel and the Arts & Entertainment Network”

Fox and WLOV could have a tough sell.

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