Ad slump smacks down News Corp.-owned entity
Born out of desperation after the merger of the WB and UPN, MyNetworkTV last week became nobody’s network TV.News Corp.’s struggling three-year-old programming venture gave up all pretense of calling itself a broadcast network on Feb. 9, announcing that it will drop its original series, cut back from 12 to 10 hours of programming a week (dumping Saturday entirely) and adopt what it calls a “programming service model” in the fall. That translates to off-network reruns — one night it will be devoted to two hours of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” repeats — as well as a movie night and its recently acquired “WWE Smackdown” wrestling showcase, which has kept the lights on for MyNet this season. The downscaling of MyNet’s ambition is a direct byproduct of the severe advertising slump in local TV. Even with a slight ratings improvement this season, MyNetwork’s primetime numbers are a tough sell in a down market. MyNet’s predicament is also a sobering reminder that even a company of News Corp.’s depth and wealth of programming resources could not make a go of a startup broadcast network in today’s environment. And News Corp. has plenty at stake in MyNet, as it was the primetime programming source for 10 of the company’s stations in major markets such as New York (WWOR), Los Angeles (KCOP) and Chicago (WPWR). The plan MyNet outlined last week seems a temporary solution at best to the longer-term problem of what News Corp. needs to do capitalize on these significant chunks of broadcast real estate. The other big question is how many of its 180 affiliate stations will hang in with the new game plan. MyNet’s retreat could open up windows of opportunity for enterprising producers to offer primetime-caliber original series to nets that soon will have time periods to fill on Saturdays and possibly other nights. Disney’s syndie arm already made a move in that direction last year with the launch of “Legend of the Seeker,” the first new syndicated drama that any major distrib has tried in years. From the get-go, MyNet was a hastily configured proposition for News Corp. The company had to scramble in early 2006 after Time Warner and CBS Corp. announced plans to meld WB and UPN into the CW. CW stuck with the WB’s core affiliate group, Tribune Broadcasting, leaving News Corp.’s UPN affils (which the company acquired for $5.3 billion in 2000 from UPN’s former owner, Chris-Craft Industries) in need of a Plan B in primetime. MyNet was put under Roger Ailes’ purview at the Fox Television Stations unit. It struggled from the start in the fall of 2006 with its gamble on low-budget telenovela style soaps running five nights a week. (Remember “Desire” and “Secret Obsessions”? Nobody else does either.) After the sudsers flopped, News Corp. appointed Greg Meidel as the dedicated prexy for MyNet in January 2007. Meidel, the former Universal TV head and syndie sales vet, helped right the ship with an overhauled sked — drawing what he could from the News Corp. archives — and a few forays into original series, a la reality skein “Jail,” and the Flava Flav comedy “Under One Roof.” He pounced on “WWE Smackdown” when it became available last year. Perhaps most important, Meidel’s deep roots in the station biz helped reassure key affiliates that MyNet had a smart hand at the tiller. Given the turmoil that stations are now facing, Meidel will need those relationships more than ever to hold MyNet together.