Tribulations on TV

Tribune's prod'n arm boasts few successes

The Hollywood community has tended to scorn the Tribune Co.’s entertainment division as a low-rent underachiever that’s mostly failed to create hit shows for its lineup of 22 big-market TV stations.

“That’s an unfair characterization,” said Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Blair TV, a company that helps TV-station clients make programming decisions. “Tribune is at heart a newspaper company, not a broadcasting company. It’s based in Chicago, not Los Angeles.”

Tribune took on its biggest programming risk more than five years ago by joining with Warner Bros. as a partner in a fifth broadcast network, the WB, which has lost about $500 million since it opened for business in January 1995. Tribune owns 25% of the WB.

Even though the weblet’s losses are enormous, Tribune says it’s happy about its stake because “the WB continues to generate strong ratings for Tribune stations,” particularly among the young adults that Madison Avenue covets. WB series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek” are hits with young audiences. Also, sources say the weblet is close to breakeven and could turn a profit by 2001.

But the rap against Tribune is that the company — one buoyed by its ownership of powerhouse TV stations including WPIX New York, KTLA Los Angeles and WGN Chicago –has not produced a breakthrough five-a-week series. In recent years, it’s mostly come up with serviceable weekly action hours such as the current “Earth: Final Conflict” and the TV-series version of the “Beastmaster” movies.

‘Simmons’ no dream

Tribune’s most recent flop was “Richard Simmons Dream Maker,” a syndicated hour that premiered as a five-a-weeker on the Tribune stations in September and got canceled in mid-season when it registered poor Nielsen ratings.

The company has, for the most part, steered clear of producing expensive pilots for the broadcast networks, even though a successful network sitcom would be a boon to Tribune’s TV stations, which often have to pony up big bucks for rerun sitcoms to fill their early-evening and latenight schedules.

Dennis FitzSimons, president of the Tribune Broadcasting Co., says that the company made one well-publicized foray into the network-production business. In the late 1980s, Tribune signed former CBS VP of programming Bud Grant as president and created Grant Tribune Entertainment, which lasted less than three years.

No more net deliveries

Stuck with flop series like the 1990 CBS sitcom “Sydney,” starring Valerie Bertinelli and Matthew Perry, FitzSimons said Tribune abandoned its attempt to deliver programs to the networks because “the big suppliers,” like Twentieth, Warner Bros., Paramount, Columbia and Touchstone, “got protected time periods.” When they came up with a network hit, the major-studio suppliers locked in commitments for the lead-in and lead-out time periods, “pushing out the little guys,” FitzSimons maintained. “The only way we could’ve made it was to create lightning in a bottle.”

Tribune’s biggest syndication hit was “Geraldo,” which it produced from 1987 to the early ’90s, when Paramount took over syndication of the show. Other Tribune-produced syndicated shows have included “The Joan Rivers Show” (1989-93), “The Dennis Miller Show” (1991-92), a half-hour crime show starring Mr. T called “T and T” (1988-89) and “Can We Shop” (1993-94).

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