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Fox Family has eyes for ‘Ally’

Price could hit $100 million

The Fox Family Channel, battered in recent months by declining ratings, is negotiating to buy the rerun rights to “Ally McBeal.”

If a deal is reached, “Ally” would represent the most expensive programming purchase ever made by Fox Family, and a major overhaul of the cabler’s original strategy of competing with Nickelodeon for the kid and family aud.

The pricetag for “Ally” reruns could easily shoot beyond $100 million, depending on the number of episodes creator David E. Kelley ends up producing for Fox Family sister company 20th Century Fox Television.

A Twentieth spokesman declined to comment on the matter, but sources said Fox Family also is interested in acquiring the rerun rights to another successful Kelley/20th series, ABC’s “The Practice.”

Twentieth opened the “Ally McBeal” talks with cable nets, including Lifetime, TNT, USA and FX, about three months ago. Twentieth’s initial asking price was a startling $1.5 million an episode for exclusive rights, or $1.2 million an episode to allow the distributor to sell weekend rights to the reruns simultaneously in off-network syndication.

TNT and USA folded their cards when Twentieth wouldn’t lower the price below $600,000 per seg. One source said Lifetime also has dropped out of the bidding, but it was unclear whether that was a final decision or just a hardball negotiating stance.

At the same time, sources say Twentieth is in talks to strike an “Ally” deal with Fox Family, which News Corp. co-owns with Saban Entertainment.

In a sign of how tricky negotiations can be between sibling units of the same conglom, News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin is said to be playing an active role in the negotiation of a possible mega-bucks deal for “Ally” and “Practice” rerun rights, with the former going to Fox Family and the latter headed to Fox’s wholly owned FX cabler.

Sources stressed that no deals had been finalized and that there was no certainty that “Ally” and “Practice” off-network sales would be done at the same time.

Still, Fox Family’s interest in the primetime hits underscores the cabler’s intent to shift toward more adult-oriented programming in primetime. Fox Family, acquired by News Corp. and Saban in 1997, has seen its Nielsen numbers plunge by 50% (in the total-day measure) since the former Family Channel was revamped into a kidvid outlet last August. In primetime, Fox Family’s ratings dropped by 36% between the first quarter of 1998 and first quarter ’99.