Infomercials set for Saturday morning slate

Fox is getting into the infomercial business.

In an unprecedented move, Fox will program two hours of longform commercials on Saturday mornings starting in January.

That’s believed to be the first time a major network has slated full-blown, program-length advertisements on its schedule.

Move follows an out-of-court legal settlement with children’s TV producer 4Kids, which had been programming Fox’s Saturday morning kids block under a time-buy agreement.

Under the settlement, Fox and 4Kids are terminating their deal early, at the end of December; 4Kids continues to buy time on the CW, where it programs that netlet’s Saturday morning slate as well.

With the kids TV marketplace completely depressed, there was no other obvious programmer available to fill the slot — or come up with the hefty $20 million that 4Kids had been paying Fox per year.

Instead, Fox opted to return two hours of the block to affiliates, and program the other two with infomercials.

“Weekend Marketplace” will air from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays; the block is cleared on 95% of Fox affils.

Because of the swiftness of the announcement — the settlement with 4Kids was reached Nov. 9 — Fox execs said the initial “Marketplace” programs will indeed be the kind of infomercials seen on basic cable and local TV.

Long term, the net hopes to seal deals with major marketers to create more traditional-looking programming that weaves in advertising messages.

“These are hopefully not infomercials,” said Fox Networks Group chairman Tony Vinciquerra. “These will be longform programs that highlights their product. In that regard, it will have a little better quality.”

Long the bane of insomniac TV viewers, infomercials have rarely been seen on the broadcast nets — save the occasional political time buy, such as Barack Obama’s recent primetime campaign ad. Advertisers played an active role in producing the early days of TV, but those programs didn’t center on the heavy-sell, pitch-heavy content seen in modern infomercials.

Fox Affiliates Associates board of governors chairman Brian Jones said he supported the network’s decision to program the infomercials — but added he believed the move was a “short-term type of answer.”

“We are all trying to navigate some critical times here in the business,” said Jones, who’s also co-chief operating officer of Nexstar Broadcasting. “We will continue to talk to them, and they’ll continue to look at what the best use of that time is, and the type of programming that’s the best long-term business for the network and the affiliates.”

Jones said he did appreciate the return of two hours on Saturday morning. Stations have been looking for more flexibility to broadcast their government-mandated weekly three hours of educational/informational programming.

Because the 4Kids block only programmed 30 minutes of educational fare, affils had to squeeze the other 2½ hours in during the week.

“A lot of us are wanting to expand our morning news presence during the week,” Jones said. “This allows us to move that E/I programming to the weekend to facilitate more local news.”

The relationship between 4Kids and Fox soured earlier this year, after 4Kids demanded a refund for some of the money it paid Fox.

According to a suit it filed against Fox in April, 4Kids said it was entitled to a refund if Fox didn’t maintain at least a 90% clearance for its Saturday morning kids block in the 8 a.m. to noon slot.

The producer computed the Fox affiliate clearances and determined that it was owed $13 million. Fox shot back that it didn’t owe 4Kids a dime.

The producer continued to program the block but didn’t pay Fox a $5 million fee due April 1, another $5 million due July 1 or $3 million of the $5 million due Oct. 1 (all told, making up the $13 million 4Kids believed it was owed).

In the settlement deal, 4Kids agreed to pay $12.25 million of the $13 million it had withheld. But with the two sides parting ways in December, 4Kids will no longer pay the $15 million it was on the fence to cough up between January and September (when its deal was set to expire).

The producer will now move some of the more popular fare from its Fox block to its CW slot. In an earnings call earlier this month, 4Kids CEO Al Kahn said he believed “the advertising market will be very, very tough in the first two quarters.”

Exec hoped that demand for spots in 4Kids’ CW block will improve now that the 64 advertising units on 4Kids’ Fox lineup are being eliminated.

Needed: Network bailout?

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