UPN working on 24-hour cable channel

Netlet looks to increase distribution

The fledgling UPN is turning to cable to get distribution in markets it currently doesn’t reach. The netlet has begun negotiating with cable operators to create a 24-hour-a-day channel called UPN Plus.

Kevin Tannehill, executive VP of network distribution for UPN, says he’s modeling UPN Plus on Fox Net, the 24-hour service Rupert Murdoch set up in 1991. Fox Net became a successful vehicle to get the Fox broadcast network cleared through cable operators in markets where there were no TV stations available to serve as affiliates.

The average U.S. clearance rate for UPN’s primetime series is only about 83.5%, leaving up to 15 million homes bereft of such programs as “Moesha,” “Clueless,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Love Boat: The Next Wave,” says Tannehill.

The irony of UPN’s decision to embrace a cable strategy after three-and-a-half years on the air, is that the network has proclaimed in the past that it would pursue only a broadcast-distribution formula, even with weak low-power TV stations in markets where no full-power alternatives existed. UPN is half-owned by Chris-Craft, which has been one of the loudest anti-cable voices in the broadcast industry.

Reaching eyeballs

“Whatever way we can reach eyeballs that’s consistent with our commitment to local TV is something we should pursue,” said UPN CEO Dean Valentine. “It’s really about the programming. If there are no broadcasters in the area, and it’s not hurting a local affiliate, why wouldn’t we want to do it?”

UPN’s strategy shift is a sign that there simply are not enough broadcast stations in smaller markets to support six (seven including PaxNet) broadcast networks.

UPN also is facing stepped-up pressure from its most direct competitor, the WB, which has spent the last 18 months lining up cable operators for WeB, whose aim is get the service into areas of the country where the WB doesn’t have an affiliation agreement with a TV station. WeB kicks off on Sept. 21.

A key difference between WeB and UPN Plus is that WeB is making two separate deals in a given market: with a local TV station (which is already affiliated with one of the Big Four broadcast networks) and with a cable system.

No cash

No cash changes hands, but the cable system hands over carriage of the 24-hour WeB channel in exchange for advertising time within and surrounding the shows. The local TV station then goes out and sells that ad time and produces local programming.

But insiders say UPN will not bring local TV stations into the blueprint. UPN plans to encourage cable operators to use their local sales forces to sell the three commercial minutes UPN Plus expects to carve out of each hour.

By eliminating the TV-station middleman, UPN Plus hopes to be able to collect a monthly license fee from cable systems of as much as 15¢ a subscriber. UPN will argue that aggressive sale of the three local minutes in UPN’s schedule will offset the license fee, and may even help the cable system to show a profit.

But Valentine says this blueprint could well get modified as UPN starts hashing out the details with cable operators over the next few months.

The network’s distribution plan is “in the very early stages,” Valentine said. “There are any number of scenarios, and, at the end of the day, it will be a negotiation between us and the cable operators.”

In addition to cable operators, Tannehill says UPN will open talks with DirecTV and Primestar, the DBS (direct broadcast satellite) distributors that right now can’t deliver UPN’s programs to the satellite-dish owners that subscribe to DBS. The third major DBS distributor, Echostar, transmits the signal of WSBK, the UPN affiliate in Boston.

Tannehill says UPN Plus will fill out the 24-hour schedule with programming from the same suppliers that sell TV series and barter movies to TV stations.