Stations buck system

In an unprecedented effort to break the grip of major studios and networks over production and distribution, five TV station groups are teaming to produce their own fare under a partnership led by former Twentieth TV syndie president Michael Lambert.

Partner Stations Network L.P. (PSN) has set up shop in Hollywood to feed the programming needs of the groups, which to-gether own 26 stations covering about 20% of the country.

The limited partners include the Lin, Malrite, Pappas, Providence Journal (which includes King Broadcasting) and River City broadcasting groups, which are funding the venture. PSN will create, develop and produce programming under the guidance of Lambert, who is the general partner.

PSN intends to test the shows on the group’s stations and, if successful, roll them out nationally — a strategy employed by Fox during Lambert’s reign with such shows as “America’s Most Wanted,””Cops” and “Studs.” The network will initially concentrate on five-day-a-week strip reality programming for early and late fringe time periods.

Lambert said the studios and networks “are going around broadcasters” by gaining stakes incable. As examples, he cited Capital Cities/ABC’s financial interest in ESPN and Lifetime and Paramount and MCA’s joint ownership of the USA Network.

“All of the traditional program suppliers have cable interests,” he said.

“This is something on the part of broadcasters to do something for themselves. It will give them greater access to the Hollywood creative community.”

Gary Chapman, president of Lin Television Group, concurred, saying, “Our traditional suppliers of programming, the networks and studios, have become vertically integrated and are reaching our local viewers directly through cable and other means. PSN gives us an opportunity to control our destiny.” River City Broadcasting CEO Barry Baker agreed that PSN will provide the stations with greater control.

“With most new television shows, a local station remains exposed to higher license fees in success and crippled time periods in failure,” he said. “PSN will make program decisions quickly and, because it is owned by broadcasters, provide the potential of significant equity returns.”

Lambert, who noted that more station groups could sign onto PSN later, said the venture marks the first time broadcasters have created a company to own and control their own supply of programming for syndication, cable and other outlets (possibly including one of the broadcast networks).

John Hayes, VP of television for Providence Journal Broadcasting, attributed the move to “the economics of doing business with studios and networks.”

The business, he said, “has changed dramatically in the last several years. The studios require longer and longer commitments even for unproven programs and the networks are tightening up on compensation and preemptions.”

“PSN provides us with an alternative source of programming, proven on air, at a time when the control of attractive product has grown increasingly concentrated,” added Harry Pappas, president-CEO of Pappas Telecasting Companies and one of the leading forces behind the Fox Children’s Network.

“Two studios control 15 of the top-20 programs in syndication and the number of distributors with a firstrun show in the top 20 has been cut in half over the last six years,” he said.

Although PSN will never be able to supply all of the stations’ own programming needs, Lambert said it will make them less dependent on the traditional pipeline.

PSN is also in discussions with two cable networks that are interested in participating in some broadcast-cable projects, according to Lambert. The 50-50 partnerships under consideration would permit the joint testing of programs, which would likely have different broadcast and cable windows.

The stations involved consist of network affiliates — 10 belonging to Fox, eight to NBC, three to CBS and two to ABC — and three independents in markets of varying sizes and geographic locales.

Because of the wide mix, Malrite Communications chairman-CEO Milt Maltz said PSN will have “access to every daypart and viewer demographic.”

The entrance of PSN into the equation has raised new questions about Warner Bros.’ contemplated fifth TV network.

WB will likely need some of the station groups involved in PSN to build its weblet, a broadcasting-cable hybrid, but Lambert insisted that PSN has “no plan or intention to get involved. The two are completely different.”

Lambert and former Fox Broadcasting prez Jamie Kellner, who is the force behind WB’s effort to create a new network, are close friends who had at one time reportedly contemplated pairing a consortium of elite independent producers with an ad-hoc network of stations.

Although WB likely will be going after primetime and, PSN is focusing on strip programming for fringe periods, Lambert noted the group has not ruled out making stabs at producing weekly hour dramas later.

“We have to walk before we can run,” he said.

If PSN eventually enters primetime, it would not bode well for WB or the existing networks, which would face the increased threat of preemptions from PSN stations opting to run their own shows.

Lambert, who serves as president of the Beverly Hills-based Lambert Television Management Inc., and who prior to Twentieth was senior VP of HBO Enterprises and Viacom Enterprises, said the partnership is well-funded with millions of dollars in development money.

The PSN head is in the process of hiring a development and production staff, which he said will provide the creative community with direct access to broadcasters, eliminating the cost associated with syndicator relationships.

The group initially will put 20 projects into development, with PSN providing two or three programs with on-air tests over the next 18 months. The goal is eventually to put two or three shows on the stations each year after the startup period.

Lambert emphasized that PSN does not intend to become a sales organization. The group will seek alliances with one or more outside distributors if shows test well on the stations.

Before making a full-season commitment to production, PSN plans to conduct short trials on its stations.

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