FOX RALLIES TROOPS

Murdoch calls b'casting key News Corp. focus fixed on b'casting

NEW ORLEANS — News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, whose vast media holdings include film, cable, satellite and print, stressed to Fox affiliates that broadcasting remains the core of the company.

Perhaps sensing wariness among affiliates toward Fox and News Corp.’s efforts to expand domestically in cable and satellite, Murdoch told station operators at the web’s winter affiliate confab that growth in other media is nec-essary for the network to compete. It was a theme all Fox execs touched on throughout the daylong confab.

“Some of you remain uneasy about our moves into other media. Like it or not, new competition to broadcasting is inevitable. More channels and more video products to compete with broadcasting are coming,” Murdoch warned. “They cannot be stopped. We ignore that reality at our own peril. Fox and Fox affiliates are far better served by meeting the marketplace challenge through expansion into complementary media and the integration of those me-dia operations to the benefit of our core business — broadcasting.”

On board to enforce that message was Peter Chernin, head of Fox’s film unit and president/chief operating officer of News Corp. It was Chernin’s first time in front of Fox affiliates in some four years.

“Programming,” Chernin said, “is our only priority.” Chernin reminded affiliates that 20th Century Fox Televi-sion, now headed by former Fox Broadcasting chief Sandy Grushow, has spent some $200 million bolstering its production roster.

Chernin said he is looking forward to working more closely with the TV side of News Corp. Fox’s efforts in mov-ies, he said, exist only to feed television.

“Without television, the movie business does not make sense,” Chernin said.

Fortifying competition

Murdoch told affiliates that they will be better served by Fox’s efforts to create other programming outlets that reinforce the Fox brand. Creating the cable web Fox Sports, Murdoch said, “strengthens our competitive position when bidding for sports rights. It is not only better, it is essential to our survival in the new vertically integrated, fast-paced media world.”

Sports, Murdoch said, will continue to be a key to Fox’s growth. While affiliates have gotten used to the web’s football coverage, baseball and hockey are still struggling in the ratings.

“Regular-season hockey and baseball games are not ratings winners for many of you — at least not yet. Television franchises must be built. We have to broaden the appeal of baseball and hockey by bringing those sports to our viewers in new and exciting ways. … We need your continued support to succeed,” Murdoch said.

With Fox’s telecast of the Super Bowl two weeks away, Murdoch and Fox TV CEO Chase Carey stressed that the web will again bid heavily for NFL rights when negotiations start next month, and that affiliates again will be ex-pected to shoulder some of the costs.

“Priority No. 1 for the coming year is the successful negotiation of a new NFL contract. We expect your financial support for the NFL renewal,” Carey said.

There was some groaning from affils about that prospect. Last time around, affiliates gave up their cut of retransmission consent fees from the launch of Fox’s cable web FX. This time, odds are that the web may want to take back some advertising time or restructure the profit-sharing in the Fox Kids Network.

“I thought I paid for the NFL by carrying hockey,” quipped one affiliate owner.

Networking for kids

On the kids front, Carey and Fox Kids CEO Margaret Loesch acknowledged the need to improve and offi-cially confirmed long-speculated-about plans to launch a domestic kids cable network to compete with Nickelodeon. Disney also is looking to launch such a channel.

“I recognize these moves have created a degree of anxiety among some of you because of potential cannibalization and dilution,” Carey said. “I won’t argue with you that there is a degree of cannibalization from these efforts.”

Affiliates’ concern over a Fox Kids cable web probably were eased by news that they will get a 50% cut of domestic cable profits on top of the $75 million being doled out to stations over five years from the Fox Children’s Network.

Fox TV and sports president David Hill told affiliates that the network’s programming goal is “the development of clever, non-smutty comedies.”

Fox TV Group chairman Peter Roth talked specifics with regard to the network’s midseason efforts as well as a push to have original programming on during the summer.

“It is our intention, as part of our year-round development strategy, to finally offer firstrun series fare. At no small investment on the part of the network, we have decided to aggressively pursue original programming while the other networks hang out their ‘gone fishing for the summer’ signs.”

Time for ‘Truth’

With regards to midseason, Roth is looking at a reality show from Dick Clark Prods. entitled “Strange Truth” for the 7-8 p.m. Sunday slot that has been filled by specials since Fox moved “Married , With Children” to Monday nights.

Roth also unveiled a spinoff of the theatrical “The Nutty Professor.” Titled “The Klumps,” the show will follow the life of Norman Klump, the cousin of Professor Sherman Klump, played in the film by Eddie Murphy.

On the drama front, “Party of Five” will finish its season in April and clear out for a new Aaron Spelling drama. “Pacific Palisades” will move into the Wednesday 9-10 p.m. slot in mid-April and run through the May sweeps.

Roth also asked affiliates to stick with the network’s struggling morning show “Fox After Breakfast,” which is be-ing overhauled both in front of and behind the camera.

At last year’s affiliate confab, Carey declared war on Nielsen and its ratings methodology and service. This time around, Carey was slightly lower key but continued to stress the need to keep the pressure on the ratings company.

“We need to pressure them for more metered markets and better measurements,” Carey said.

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