Digi-Nets Seek Seat at Grown-Up Table

Savannah, Ga.-based Morris Network is one of the more aggressive broadcast groups in the U.S. when it comes to making use of its multicast tiers. The group’s six stations have more than doubled their offerings through vintage programming channels such as Antenna TV and RTV, and junior broadcast nets such as MyNetworkTV (MNT) and The CW.

In July, its WXXV Biloxi—a Fox affiliate with MNT on its multicast tier—will add NBC to the mix too. The NBC station will go on the dot-two—with MNT on dot-three—and will be broadcast over the air, and on Cable One, in hidef. Not only is Biloxi-Gulfport getting Today and The Voice and the Summer Olympics, but Morris Network will launch local news in DMA No. 162, too.

Dean Hinson, president of Morris Network, says the nearest NBC affiliates are in New Orleans and Mobile—at least until July. “It’s an opportunity we’ve been dying to do,” he says, “and now the economics make sense.”

While opportunities to run Big Four network programming on a subchannel are rare, stations all over the country have an ever-increasing batch of digital networks to partner with, from oldies channels to Spanish-language entertainment to music videos. The better distributed digi-nets, including Bounce TV and Me-TV, are in advanced talks with Nielsen, and appear poised to entice a wider base of advertisers by putting real ratings numbers next to their programming.

The pacts are unlikely to be ironed out for the pending upfront season, but some of these nets are eyeing next year’s upfront with the intent of taking their place at the table. The folks behind Me-TV, for one, are expecting results from a test with Nielsen to be available in the next quarter.

“They’re monitoring our viewership and looking at the ratings results,” says John Hendricks, executive VP of sales at parent Weigel. “If we feel we can monetize them in the upfront market, we’ll participate in it next year.”

Bounce TV, the African-American-targeted network that launched last fall, hopes to announce a deal with Nielsen for national C3 ratings soon. “Bounce TV’s enormous local ratings success has motivated us to step up to the next level,” says David Brenner, senior partner of Marathon Ventures, which sells for Bounce. “Agencies want national accountability and Bounce is working aggressively to provide that.”

Calls to This TV, another advanced digi-net, were not returned by presstime.

That both the networks and their partner stations are increasingly bringing Nielsen into the mix signals a significant step forward for multicasting. WITI Milwaukee and WJW Cleveland, among a few others, get ratings for Antenna TV. WAWS Jacksonville and WTHR Indianapolis are among those who subscribe to Nielsen for Me-TV. WTHR was pleased to see M*A*S*H come in second at 7-8 p.m. in its first week of ratings March 5-9; it ran well behind Two and a Half Men but its 12,700 average household viewers was just ahead of Family Guy.

“Some people, some agencies want to see the numbers,” says Brian Fields, WTHR research director. “This gives us the ability to do that.”

Industry watchers say the savvier broadcasters will put more energy into selling their subchannel fare. WVUE New Orleans showed its commitment to Bounce TV by hiring Curtis Pace as the general manager of channel 8.2 last week—the first Bounce affiliate to do so. “Based on early ratings success that has been nothing short of phenomenal, Bounce TV-New Orleans has already begun to grow into a serious local competitor in our market,” says Joe Cook, president of parent Louisiana Media Co.

With boffo political spending on tap for stations, some say the diginets— particularly the boomer-friendly oldies ones—can grab a piece. “It’s a question of how you manage your sales force,” says broadcast vet Mark Dvornik, former RTV executive VP. “You’ve got to make sure you’re putting a budget against it, because those incremental dollars are real.”

Morris Network’s subchannels represent 3-5% of the overall station revenue, says Henson, but require minimal upfront costs. Launching news is a different story: WXXV Biloxi is expanding its headquarters to accommodate the 15 or so bodies it will hire to gather and present news at the Fox, and soon-to-launch NBC, affiliates.

“These are exciting times,” says Hinson. “We are strong, strong believers in the longevity of television.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.