News Corp. nonfiction net may bow in May

SAN FRANCISCO — After months of planning, News Corp. is taking the wraps off the overall strategy, look and programming plans for Fox Reality, the 24-hour nonfiction net slated to launch next month.

Fox Reality chief operating officer-general manager David Lyle is expected to announce today — day two of the NCTA confab here — that he has locked up more than 1,000 hours of programming and about 30 series for a May 24 debut. Launch slate will include both Fox faves (“The Swan,” “Joe Millionaire,” “Temptation Island”) and hits from non-News Corp. outlets (“Last Comic Standing,” “For Love or Money”).

Cabler is also in talks with Warner Bros.-owned Telepictures to acquire off-net episodes of Mike Fleiss’ ABC vet “The Bachelor.” No pact is in place yet, and reps for Fox Reality declined comment.

In addition to securing programming, Lyle has finalized his senior executive team and inked key carriage deals with Adelphia and Insight, putting Fox Reality in at least 18.5 million homes for its first year — impressive for a cable launch. Net has prior commitments from DirectTV, Dish and Cox.

Lyle said executives are currently negotiating with several other MSOs for carriage, and those deals could push distribution as high as 23 million subs by year’s end. Few other startups have launched to more then 20 million viewers, among them are News Corp.’s FX, National Geographic Channel and Fox News Channel.

Fox to be first

As things stand, it looks as though Fox Reality will be the first all-reality channel out of the gate. Reality 24-7, the planned cabler headed up by USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz, announced a 2004 launch but has yet to announce its debut or additional distribution deals.

Former Bravo exec Lorey Zlotnick has come aboard to head up marketing for Fox Reality, joining former Game Show Network programmer Bob Boden, whom Lyle has hired to serve as entertainment chief (Daily Variety, March 28). David Nathanson will serve as VP of business and operations.

Zlotnick said the logo — a bright splatter of paint that’s slightly rough around the edges — is emblematic of the intended raucous and irreverent voice of the network.

“We prefer not to be overproduced or glossy. It’s a reality channel, so we’re trying to stay true to being real,” Zlotnick said.

Lyle added: “Reality TV isn’t precious, and it’s not to be put on a pedestal. It’s to be loved and enjoyed, and that’s how we’re going to present it.”

Not surprisingly, the launch slate includes a heavy dose of fare from Mike Darnell’s Fox Broadcasting reality factory. In addition to the previously mentioned skeins, net will repeat episodes of the two “My Big Fat Obnoxious…” franchises, “Mr. Personality,” specials like “Celebrity Boxing” and the little-seen Bunim-Murray produced “Love Cruise.” “Worlds Apart,” from Fox Reality cousin National Geographic Channel, is also on the docket, as are “Single Girls” and “The Villa” from U.K.-based Sky TV.

Dipping in for deals

But a number of outside congloms, indie production studios and international suppliers have also done business with Fox Reality. In addition to NBC’s “Comic” and “Love or Money,” cabler has secured episodes of USA’s “Mad, Mad House,” NBC’s Bruce Nash-produced “Meet My Folks,” Dick Wolf’s “Arrest & Trial,” Renegade’s “Fifth Wheel” and “Who Wants to Marry My Dad?”

Cabler also plans to air international editions of skeins such as “Joe Millionaire” and “Temptation Island.”

Despite noticeable absence of series from Viacom’s CBS or MTV nets, Lyle says most producers and studios outside of News Corp. have been open to working with the channel.

“No one has refused to play ball,” he said, adding that the cabler is in discussions for a number of ABC series including “Last Resort,” “Scariest Places on Earth” and “The Family.” “We’re interested in the widest range of reality programming we can get.”

Also missing are major reality skeins including “Survivor,” “American Idol,” “The Apprentice” and “Big Brother.” Lyle says while certain shows simply aren’t available, he is also trying to select shows that will repeat well.

“We’re trying to pick shows that we think will have some legs,” he said. Traditionally, serialized shows don’t perform as well in a second run as skeins with self-contained episodes.

To start, original content will be limited to one-time specials, wraparounds and interstitials featuring behind-the-scenes footage, updates on past reality personalities and commentary from those involved.

Originals upcoming

Lyle said Fox Reality will certainly be in the business of creating original reality series and expects the first to roll out as early as fourth quarter of this year or the start of 2006.

And while the on-air sked is not yet firm, Lyle’s mulling over several programming possibilities including an “unseen treasures” block that could revive such short-lived series as CBS’ “The Will,” canceled after just one episode aired, and Fox’s “Playing It Straight.”

Latenight, meanwhile, could be relegated to “spicier” reality shows from abroad.

Keenly aware of the already over-crowded TV landscape, Lyle is also busy with a multiplatform strategy that will roll out gradually after the launch.

“VOD is very important to us, and we’re working those deals out as we speak. We’re also exploring cell phone applications and, of course, we’ll have a vibrant Web presence,” he said. “Reality fans will be able to get those bits of footage and information that they haven’t seen yet.”

And, like many past Fox cable nets, Lyle will also launch Fox Reality with a minimum of hype. Even its launch date will be a low-key affair, given that May 24 also happens to be the same date Fox Broadcasting will kick off the two-night finale to the fourth season finale of “American Idol.”

As for the new execs, Zlotnick was previously VP of marketing for Bravo and earlier for Sony Pictures Entertainment. She’s held various marketing positions within Disney/ABC Cable Networks, working on campaigns for Disney Channel’s first tween-targeted movie franchise and the launches of SoapNet and Playhouse Disney.

Nathanson joins Fox Reality from Fox College Sports, where he was general manager. During his time at Fox Cable Networks, he helped develop early digital distribution strategies and products including VOD, digital networks, interactive television and high-definition applications.

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