Turner axes WB channel Down Under

SYDNEY – Turner Broadcasting appears to have pulled the plug on WBTV — the Warner Channel Down Under, which was skedded to bow Feb. 1 on Kerry Packer/Con-tinental Cablevision cabler Optus Vision (OV).

OV regional director Rod Hines told reporters, “It’s a branding issue. It won’t be called Warner Bros.”

Following the merger of Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting, Warner’s international TV operation shutters at the end of the month, with responsibility for WBTV moving to Turner. Plans for launches of WBTV in the U.K. on BSkyB and Germany on DF1 were scrapped after the merger, but insiders said signed contracts meant the Australian launch was to go ahead.

WBTV Australia chief exec Ric Burns didn’t return calls, while WBTV execs in L.A. forwarded calls to Turner offices in London.

WBTV Australia, which is owned wholly by Warner, would have been WBTV’s first channel in the Asia-Pacific (Daily Variety, Aug. 27, 1996). Insiders said that because Warner was still contracted to supply OV with Warner product, OV now plans to launch a general entertainment service which it will promote as carrying primarily Warner material or possibly bow a Turner-branded channel, depending on the outcome of negotiations with Turner.

“It was all full speed ahead to launch in February, but now we haven’t been told anything,” an insider said. “There’s a big cloud hanging over the channel, but we just don’t know the outcome.”

The loss of the Warner brand name can only be seen as a blow to OV, which has been keen to boost its number of branded entertainment channels for marketing purposes.

Meanwhile, OV’s push into local telephony appears to be stalling, after the cabler admitted Wednesday only 120,000 homes of the 900,000 passed in Sydney can presently sign up for telephony, owing to technical work needed to equip a feevee cable to handle telephony.

Launched with much fanfare and an avalanche of advertising in June, OV’s so-called “new deal in local telephony” promised heavily discounted local calls and was touted as a core plank of OV’s business plan.

Hines, who also announced OV will offer the WBC heavyweight title fight between Lennox Lewis and Oliver McCall live from Las Vegas as its first pay-per-view event on Feb. 8, admitted OV had failed to meet “aggressive targets” for local telephony, but reps refused to comment on rumors the company had signed up a mere handful of subscribers.

At the same time, Kerry Packer’s Nine Network is said to be close to signing for the free-to-air rights to News Corp.’s SuperLeague rugby competish, which will air on Rupert Murdoch’s Oz cabler Foxtel. Murdoch, who paid a personal visit Down Under over Christmas, is said to have met with his archrival Packer.

Relations between titans soured last year over OV’s yearlong legal attempts to quash SuperLeague, which caused a string of deals between the two to collapse and a rash of lawsuits to be filed. News Corp. execs said any deal on SuperLeague, which is expected to be announced Friday, is “not a peace treaty.”

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