Warner Bros. and a consortium of independent stations plan to expand their Prime Time Entertainment Network to two nights next January by adding the sci-fi action series “Babylon 5” to the schedule.
In addition to the new series, PTEN is renewing its two current syndie entrants, “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues” and “Time Trax,” for 22 episodes each, and plans to order two telepix for next February’s sweeps that will serve as backdoor series pilots for further expansion.
The ad-hoc network will also offer its second miniseries, a 10-hour project earmarked for September 1994 titled “Time-Life Presents the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
As part of the renewal deal, WB agreed to permit stations to give up their back-end commitment to air the reruns of PTEN shows after three or four seasons, once there are enough episodes in the can.
In exchange, WB intends to expand the barter split to provide the syndicator/producer with more money up front. Currently, WB retains seven minutes per hour while the stations get five.
But WB Domestic TV Distribution prez Dick Robertson said the stations won’t lose any of their local spots, meaning that Warners will carve out the extra time from the shows. He declined to comment on how much time WB intends to take.
The stations will have the first option of licensing the reruns, but Robertson said they will have to pay the market rate if they want the programs. Under the previous working relationship, the stations carrying the firstrun series would have received a lower back-end price.
By increasing its take of the advertising revenue, Robertson is confident that WB can finance the projects — particularly “Babylon 5,” which he called a “very expensive” show to produce.
The series, which garnered strong ratings as a telepic in March (a 9.7 in the Nielsen national syndication barter rankings), does not cost as much as Paramount’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine,” which run at more than $ 1.5 million per episode.
Robertson attributes the smaller price for “Babylon 5,” which he declined to specify, to the $ 200,000-$ 300,000 savings from shooting the series off the studio lot.
PTEN has ordered 22 episodes of “Babylon 5,” which WB describes as centering around the “intrigue and espionage aboard a space station that plays home to a conglomeration of heroes and thieves, rogues and healers.”
The decision to give up the back-end commitment will be in the “long-term interest of this network,” Robertson said. “This program formula was best served by … modifying the structure (of the deal) with the stations.
“Once we agreed on the programs, we figured the most intelligent way to finance this was to switch the onus from having to obligate the stations to take the back end.”
Along with the increase in programming and the change in financing, WB plans to broaden the scope of PTEN to encompass network affiliates as well as independent TV stations.
PTEN, according to Robertson, will increasingly seek prime time preemptions on Big Three affils as time slots dry up on the Fox weblet.
Currently, 85 of the 146 stations carrying PTEN fare are small-market Fox affiliates that have the 10-11 p.m. hour available.
As the Fox weblet expands and time slots go away, Robertson said PTEN “will be forced to go to affiliates in those markets.”
With strictly non-Fox indies, PTEN can only cover 60% of the country. The ad-hoc network is now cleared in 92% of the country and would need at least 70- 80% of the country to continue — a situation that necessitates affiliate preemptions.
Paramount, with its expensive firstrun hours such as “Star Trek” and “The Untouchables,” also will likely be forced to make similar affiliate preemption moves in the years ahead.
That could explain why Par has been so agreeable in waiving penalties for CBS affiliates that downgrade the syndicator’s “Arsenio Hall Show” to make room for the new David Letterman talker at 11:30 p.m.
With its expansion, the PTEN sked will change. “Kung Fu” will remain at 9 p.m. Wednesday, with “Babylon 5” moving into the 8 p.m. slot previously occupied by “Time Trax.” That series will move to the second night.
Of the two telefilms on order as potential series, one is the futuristic “Island City,” which will be produced by Lee Rich Prods. in association with Lorimar Television. The second will be announced shortly.
The “History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” project will be produced by Time-Life TV in association with Quincy Jones Entertainment and David Salzman Entertainment. Bob Meyerowitz also will serve as one of the exec producers.
The mini is designed to broadcast in two-hour segs over five consecutive week nights or in one-hour installments over 10 nights — a pattern PTEN employed successfully for “The Wild West” this year.
PTEN is a consortium of major indies and groups, which includes Chris-Craft/United, whose president Evan Thompson serves as the programming assembly’s executive committee chairman.