CW birth raises affil questions
NATPE floor from speculating on what might happen next. The powerful station group now under the direct control of Murdoch maven Roger Ailes will lose nine UPN affiliates in top-25 markets including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — and how those stations get rebranded, reprogrammed and repitched to advertisers is the quandary of the hour, almost certainly through the May sweeps. “It doesn’t seem sensible to promote a network that no longer exists, so there is no point in our spending money to brand it,” said News Corp. spokesman Andrew Butcher. Fox had other reasons to be infuriated about being left in the dark about the tie-up. Had the station group known it would suddenly need programming, it might have stepped up just last week and bought the rights to “American Idol Rewind,” the syndie hybrid being pitched by distrib Tribune. As it turned out, Fox threw in its hand and the project went to the Tribune stations. Smaller stations were variously irked as well, with many around the country pulling their UPN and WB logos from the screen Wednesday and scratching the logo from their promotional materials. Hearst-Argyle KQCA in Sacramento — one of the top-rated WB affils — put out a “to hell with the WB” statement Wednesday. “The strength of KQCA is not solely dependent on the WB Network programming for success. We will develop a new strategy for the station, which will include new programming, new content and anew station identity,” said general manager Elliott Troshinsky. As for how to turn the disenfranchisement into an opportunity, syndicators large and small mulled their options on Wednesday. Among the more likely scenarios: Ailes will finally manage to expand the capacity of the Fox news machine and program news and information in primetime on those newly disenfranchised stations. Or Fox’s distribution sibling Twentieth TV could jump in with its English-lingo trio of telenovelas, offering them as a one-hour primetime strip. Along with the sudsers, Twentieth could provide a second daily run of its court shows “Judge Alex” and “Divorce Court” in the other primetime hour. Obviously other syndicators — most pertinently Sony, which by law can’t own its own station group — want to get in on the action as well. A meeting already is scheduled for Monday between Sony toppers, including production-distribution bigwig Steve Mosko, and the Fox phalanx, captained by Ailes and station group head Jack Abernathy. Sony boasts a 7,000-title inventory of movies, as well as innumerable dramas and laffers in development that could be fast-tracked for these nine stations. Idea here would be that the programming provided to these nine influential Fox stations would be picked up by the 150-odd other dispossessed stations, which were formerly either branded as WB outlets or UPN affils. “What does all this mean for us?” was the most common question heard among station execs as the news of their changed status hit home. Not that there was panic, because stations traditionally buy and shelve more than they can ever utilize on air. “I expect we’ll see a lot of 4 p.m. shows get an upgrade to primetime,” is how one station programmer put it Wednesday. Indies, too, are bent on getting in on the action. Carsey-Werner, one of the few remaining viable indie distribs in the biz, already is thinking about offering “That ’70s Show” as a primetime fix for one night. “FX is the model for vertically playing ‘That ’70s Show,’ ” said C-W distrib prexy Jim Kraus. “On most Fridays in primetime it beats other shows on three broadcast nets in males. If it works for FX, it should work for these newly minted indies.” Amusingly, the newly styled UPN-WB fifth network is dubbed CW, which could be confused with both Carsey-Werner and the country-western niche. Bets are on that the name will be changed by the summer, as other elements of the new network come into focus. For the disenfranchised, losing the cachet of shows like “Smallville” (on the WB) and “Everybody Hates Chris” (on UPN) to the new CW network may not be as debilitating as it seems at first. Ad spots in “Desire” or “That ’70s Show” wouldn’t go for the same advertising dollars that “Smallville” commands, but as indies, these stations would retain more advertising time to sell. There’d be no split with the network, because their network has vanished. The next few months will see a lot of horse-trading as to which station in a given market actually ends up as the CW affil and which becomes the neo-indie. In Kansas City, for example, Hearst-Argyle operates a UPN affil and Meredith owns a WB affil. That Meredith owns six other CBS affils could end up the decisive factor. But it could also come down to cash. “Who’s going to give me the most money in a market?” speculated one station exec. Small operators — those with just a few UPN or WB affil in tiny markets — could end up muscled out and will see their programming costs rise if they operate as indie stations. They also will see their market cap fall, as indie status is not the same as affil status in the eyes of investors. What all this will do for stations that are planning to be bought or sold is even dicier. (Michael Learmonth in New York contributed to this report.)
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