Down but not out

Despite low ratings, MyNet to stay the course

MyNetworkTV is still waiting to be Somebody’s NetworkTV.

Since its Sept. 5 launch, MyNet has averaged just under a million viewers in primetime.

For comparison’s sake, that means MyNet regularly places below the top 15 cable networks, including even Spike TV and A&E.

And its major market stations have seen primetime fortunes plummet as much as 90% (Seattle and Tampa, particularly) from last year, when they still programmed WB or UPN shows.

Fox TV Stations and Twentieth TV execs behind MyNet (which still doesn’t have a dedicated staff of its own) say it’s too soon to judge the venture.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” says Fox TV Stations CEO Jack Abernethy. “There’s no way to handicap a new business. You’ve got to be very careful not to set yourself up to a premature sense of failure or success.”

That said, Abernethy admits that he’d like the ratings to be better.

A slight uptick in viewership last month gave the upstart service some reason for optimism.After launching at 1.3 million and dipping down to just above 800,000 viewers at the end of September, MyNet crept back up to over a million viewers by mid-October.

That’s an improvement, but by no means a turnaround.

“As long as we’re growing, I could be happy,” says Abernethy, who contends Nielsen samples can be hard to read at MyNet’s low levels. Meanwhile, execs at major MyNet affils are anxiously looking at the numbers, and say advertisers have been slow to join the telenovela train.

“The agencies, generally speaking, do not take a chance on new product,” says Sinclair exec VP/chief financial officer David Amy. “There’s a reluctance from agencies to commit money until they see numbers. From that standpoint, it’s a much tougher sell.”

Abernethy says he understands advertiser hesitancy to “place a bet and then have it go south,” but that it’s a problem “quickly fixed by better ratings.”

What that ratings benchmark might be isn’t clear just yet; nor is any backup plan MyNet might have should the telenovelas ultimately fail to take off. With production already under way on their fifth and sixth telenovelas (set to debut in March), MyNet appears to be committed to the strategy through at least June.

Amy says MyNet’s strategy of turning over more ad time to affils (tripling local inventory) has offset some ratings losses on Sinclair’s affils. That’s bought the netlet a bit of patience from station owners like Sinclair, which for now is giving Fox the benefit of the doubt.

“We still have great confidence that they will be a success in the long run,” Amy says. “We’re not worried about the first six months or year but everyone would have liked to have seen more time to develop the whole thing, from promotion and marketing, to get more viewers to the product than what they have.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying.

MyNet got a lot of media attention thanks to its unconventional low-cost (about $100,000 an episode) all-telenovelas, all-the-time approach and the fact that it was rising from the ashes of two defunct nets.

Fox TV Stations also took advantage of its much stronger Fox Network outlets to promote MyNet — raising the hackles of Fox Broadcasting execs, who were concerned that the marketing was overshadowing its own shows.

Sinclair’s Amy says he’s impressed that MyNet managed to get on the air at all, given the short time News Corp. execs had to launch the netlet.

MyNet was thrown together virtually overnight, after Fox execs were blindsided by the formation of the CW network.

“They did a lot in a hurry and did a heck of a job getting it off the ground that quickly,” Amy says. “The folks at Fox have proven themselves in the past that they know what they’re doing.”

When Warner Bros. and CBS announced in January that they were shutting down the WB and UPN, the Fox TV Stations Group — with its stable of top-market UPN affils — scrambled to figure out how to fill that primetime hole.

Abernethy and Fox TV Stations chairman Roger Ailes decided to tap the telenovelas being developed by their 20th TV syndie arm for a netlet to be launched with News Corp.’s former UPN affils as charter outlets.

MyNet also originally planned to throw reality skeins and newsmags into the pipeline. But by summer, Fox and 20th execs were so pleased by the netlet’s first two dramas (“Desire” and “Fashion House”) that they decided to stick with that genre exclusively.

MyNet may still be wedded to the telenovelas, but execs say they’re willing to try something else to air in addition to — but not replace — its drama sked.

“Like every programmer, we’re looking at what’s new out there, what’s hot, who are the best people,” Abernethy says. “We’d like things that would complement the telenovelas as a lead-in or lead-out. But the idea that we’ll cut and run (from telenovelas) is not correct.”

Amy hopes that Fox execs will keep the door open to other options should the telenovelas not catch on by the end of the season.

“At some point you’d be crazy to keep doing something that doesn’t work,” he says. “I’m confident that if it doesn’t work they’ll make changes.”

MyNet will premiere its second batch of 13-week telenovelas — “Watch Over Me” and “Art of Betrayal” — next month.

“We’re hopeful that as the two current arcs build to their end, and we launch the two new ones, that we’ll begin to see the kind of ratings that we’ll need to have on a long-term basis,” Abernethy says.

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