Fox has a sixth sense

Ailes will head prime time web

Where the WB and UPN saw a dead end, News Corp. sees opportunity. Conglom unveiled its plan for a sixth national broadcast service, to be dubbed My Network TV, Wednesday.

Startup programming consists of just two series — steamy primetime telenovelas “Desire” and “Secrets” — but News Corp. prexy-chief operating officer Peter Chernin is already calling the new enterprise “the first program network of the 21st century.”

Launched to gobble up the TV stations that have recently lost their affiliation with either UPN or the WB, My Network TV was unveiled at a packed press conference hosted by Chernin, Fox TV Stations chairman Roger Ailes and Fox Stations CEO Jack Abernethy.

The network has fixed Sept. 5 as its start date, locking in 10 Fox-owned stations in major markets (including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) reaching 24% of the country. Nine of these 10 stations are UPN affils that were not considered candidates for the CW, the network that will rise out of the merger of UPN and the WB.

The CW also kicks off during the first week of September.

The primetime sked of My Network will consist of 12 hours a week: “Desire” every weeknight at 8, followed by “Secrets” at 9. On Saturday night, a recap of the previous week’s episodes of “Desire” runs at 8, with the “Secrets” recap at 9.

Twentieth TV has started production in Los Angeles on the two shows. Like a classic Latin American telenovela, each will go for 65 hourlong episodes over a 13-week season. Twentieth has bought a number of Spanish-language telenovelas and translated them into English. Unknown actors chosen for their youth and physical attributes dominate the casts.

Sales execs of Twentieth TV, the distribution arm of News Corp., have begun fanning out to line up stations in markets beyond the initial 10.

“We’ve tailored this network to be profitable from day one,” Chernin said.

Twentieth will tape each of the telenovelas at a cost of about $1.3 million a week, and My Network TV’s sole revenues will come from the sale of 30-second spots.

Abernethy declined to discuss any station deal points, but no cash will change hands. If the network dictates a commercial load of 14 minutes within each hour, there’ll be one bottom line: how many of the 14 minutes My Network will keep for sale to national advertisers.

“We can afford to be station-friendly,” said Chernin, “because we won’t have the burden of bloated overhead costs” that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in red ink on the books of UPN and WB.

So My Network could hold back only eight minutes instead of nine of the 14, giving stations six minutes an hour for local sale.

By contrast, the CW is likely to award stations a maximum of three minutes an hour and, unlike My Network, it is insisting on cash payments from the stations.

But Madison Avenue execs say that advertisers will pay much higher rates — the so-called network-primetime cost per thousand — for proven CW programming like “Smallville,” “America’s Top Model” and “Gilmore Girls.”

With “Desire,” Twentieth has done a second reversal on its marketing plan.

Show first emerged late last year as a September syndicated strip for all of the Fox-owned stations to play in the time period of their choosing.

After sounding out stations in markets where there aren’t Fox O&Os, Twentieth reversed course last month, pitching the show for June on the premise that kids are out of school and planted in front of their TV sets, and that reruns dominate the schedules of the broadcast nets and of TV stations awash in syndicated shows.

Some TV stations that bought “Desire” in the last six weeks as a daily syndicated series will not be able to accommodate its primetime run. In these cases, Twentieth will get these stations to surrender the show, allowing Twentieth to place it on a My Network station in the market — thanks to a boilerplate clause in the contract that says, in effect, that the show’s shifting to a national network changes the terms of the deal.

If one or both of the telenovelas falters during the fourth quarter, My Network has a batch of reality strips in development, including “Catwalk,” featuring three supermodels in a nationwide search for the next star model (from Twentieth TV); “Celebrity Love Island,” which throws together six celebs and six civilians on a sensual tropical isle (from Granada); “On Scene,” a magazine series examining real-life criminal cases (from Fox News); and “America’s Brainiest,” a quiz show based on a British hit from Celador.