20th TV revives its ‘Affair’ with tabloids

Net brings 'Current' news to current times

Bob Cook, the calm, deliberative president of Twentieth TV, says he’s getting revved up about the resuscitated “A Current Affair,” which picks up where the pioneering 1986-96 tabloid series left off.

Citing its intensive coverage of George Allen Smith, a honeymooner who disappeared from a cruise ship off the coast of Turkey in early July, Cook says, “We’re getting requests for video from places like ‘Good Morning America’ and Court TV, and they’re also asking to interview our correspondent on the story.”

Cook recalls that the original “Current” didn’t become a hit until it started to come up with high-profile stories, such as an amateur sex video showing Rob Lowe en flagrante with multiple partners, and another amateur video of the Preppie Murderer Robert Chambers at a party twisting the neck of a doll.

The new version of “Current” costs about $500,000 a week to produce, which is on par with a typical syndicated magazine but far more expensive than the average syndie talkshow or courtshow. “Current” began in March exclusively on the Fox-owned TV stations in a kind of glorified dress rehearsal for the full national rollout in January.

“We want to get the product right before we send it out to the rest of the country,” says Frank Cicha , VP of programming for the Fox TV Station Group.

Cook says members of the production staff, led by Peter Brennan, creator and exec producer of both the original “Current” and the sequel, “are still fine-tuning the series” to boost Nielsens, now lagging behind earlier levels.

These numbers show that “Current” is averaging a 2.6 household rating season to date in the metered-market overnights. That’s down by 24% from its average lead-in and off by 19% from the same time periods a year ago.

Twentieth was expecting better, because “Current” runs in high-visibility time periods on a number of solid TV stations. However, Cicha says some audience dropoff was inevitable because “Current” often replaced popular sitcoms.

Some of the Fox stations may have to live with subpar ratings for a while because the sitcom-rerun well is running dry, says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media, a rep firm. Commissioning firstrun shows to slot in key time periods is a must.

“Current Affair” is at least fresh, and its viewership could grow,” Losak says, unlike warhorses like “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons,” often flogged with multiple runs every days. Those skeins, Losak says, “will keep declining in ratings.”

Many analysts argue that “Current” is actually doing better than expected because the kind of stories it embraces also harvest extensive coverage on MSNBC, Fox News Channel, CNN and Headline News. But others make the case for a show that a tabloid show that doesn’t dwell on the war on terror or other heavy political fare.

“Viewers need relief from apocalyptic stories about terrorists, and ‘Current Affair’ gives them stories about people they can identify with,” says Paul Levinson, head of communications and media studies for Fordham U.

Brennan says host Tim Green is becoming more comfortable introducing the stories and schmoozing on camera with correspondents.

While the producers keep tinkering with the format, Twentieth TV’s sales execs are beating the bushes to sign more TV stations to drive the clearance rate to at least 80% of the U.S. by January. (Current rate: about 67%.)

That 80% is a necessity because Twentieth starts extracting three 30-second spots in January for the first time, adding a crucial second revenue stream to the license fees ponied up by the stations. Any percentage lower than 80 will be a turnoff to Madison Avenue media buyers.

But considering that only one of every 25 series becomes a hit in syndication, Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, another rep firm, says “Current” is proceeding at a respectable pace, and may even be ahead of the game.

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