Frog flogs rumors

WB topper keeps nights off hit list

The WB has put to rest rumors that it might scrap a night of programming, such as the net’s weak Sunday night sked.

Such scuttlebutt gained steam a month ago in the midst of cost-cutting at corporate parent Time Warner (including the pinkslipping of several top-level Frog execs) and the weblet’s poor ratings and fiscal performance.

WB chief exec Garth Ancier even told Daily Variety in December that eliminating a night in order to concentrate on fewer hours wasn’t out of the question.

But speaking to reporters at the net’s Television Critics Assn. press tour session on Monday, Ancier said reducing the net’s programming hours was no longer an option.

“We’re not giving up a night, not Friday and not Sunday,” he said. Contrary to other reports, Ancier also said the weblet will likely bring back its Sunday 5-7 p.m. “Easy View” block of program reruns.

Much of the night-cutting speculation had centered on Sunday, where most of the WB’s regular 7-9 p.m. lineup also consisted of repeats. Ancier admitted that the over-reliance on rehashed fare was the consequence of financial considerations.

“We did some of that for economic reasons, to keep costs down for 2005 and reach our numbers,” he said.

Ancier said money was also at the heart of why the net couldn’t come to terms with Spelling TV to bring back veteran hit “7th Heaven” beyond this season. Even at a reduced license fee vs. last season, the WB stands to lose $16 million on the show this year, he said.

“At least to us, that’s a big number,” Ancier said. “Because of its lifespan and just how poorly it’s been repeating, (‘Seventh Heaven’) has been downtrending for a number of years. As much as we all love the show, you do have to run a business. And the broadcasting business is very challenging for all networks today.”

Ancier said the landscape has become even trickier in the wake of Internet programming and video-on-demand. The Frog is waiting for Warner Bros. to come up with a companywide template before diving into the world of iPods, Internet portals and search engines.

“All of this is such uncharted territory and has come so fast,” Ancier said. “I think we’re all going through and figuring out what the economics are of these different businesses now. This is a really tumultuous time for TV as a medium.”

Uncertainty surrounding the Frog’s Internet and VOD models has played a part in holding up the WB’s new affiliation deal with Tribune, which owns a stake in the net and its major-market outlets. But both sides have finally reached an understanding on those matters, and a new pact should be finalized in the coming weeks, Ancier said.

Exec said the Tribune deal should put to rest some questions about the net’s ongoing viability.

“It’s just too important to the studio and too important to the stations to not go forward,” he said.

The WB’s current pact with Tribune — actually the second of two one-year extensions of its previous deal — is set to expire at the end of the summer. Ancier said both sides had wanted to wait and see which direction the industry headed in the Internet/VOD space before committing to a new agreement themselves.

As of now, Ancier said the WB and Tribune had come to a “good faith” understanding that as nets like NBC and CBS come up with an industry standard, “Tribune will live with it, and so will we … We didn’t want to put our chin out front.”

Under the expected pact, Tribune still has to sign off on any deal before WB moves forward with offering programming on other platforms.

Because of its young, early adopter audience, Ancier believes the net could have an advantage in posting programming online.

“If you can figure out a way to stream the WB, with some commercials intact day of air over the Internet in a way that’s fair with your affiliates and fair to your producers … I think that would be a great thing for our viewers over broadband,” he said.

Overall, Ancier and WB Entertainment prexy David Janollari said they were optimistic about the network’s chances in the second half of the season, counting newcomers “Supernatural” and “Related” and the second cycle of “Beauty and the Geek” as reasons to feel that the tide is turning at the net.

“We’re in a place of rebuilding,” Janollari said. “Since I’ve gotten here, that’s been the mantra — rebuild and replenish new, ongoing long-term hits … I think we have some really successful pieces going forward. Are we about a tenth off of where we want to be? Sure.”

In other news:

  • The WB is developing the script “My Dog Sparky” with Ellen DeGeneres and her brother Vance DeGeneres.

Half-hour laffer would follow the exploits of an American family as told from the point of view of the family dog — as voiced by Ellen DeGeneres.

  • WB Entertainment prexy Janollari also announced that thesp Matthew Bomer (“Flightplan”) will star in the Frog project “Cult,” from Rockne O’Bannon (Daily Variety, Aug. 19). And Craig Wright (“Six Feet Under”) is developing the teenage ensemble “Juniper Hall,” about a New England boarding school as told through a new female student.

  • Previously reported projects in development for next season include “Aquaman,” from Alfred Gough and Miles Millar and starring Will Toale; a Brandy starrer from Mara Brock Akil; a Nick Lachey-led romantic comedy from Danny Jacobson; and the reality entry “Survival of the Fittest” (Daily Variety, Jan. 16).

  • Janollari said the net is also in talks with “Beauty and the Geek” exec producers about reversing the gender in the hit reality skein’s next edition.
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