Duops do deals

Duoplies are creating new problems and opportunities for syndicators as the co-owned stations begin swapping programs.

Programming executives at duopolies owned by Viacom, Hearst-Argyle, Tribune and, most recently Fox/Chris-Craft are dealing with a whole new world.

"It's all about doing things that haven't been done before," explains Lee Kinberg, programming chief for Viacom's Boston duopoly WBZ-TV/WSBK-TV. "We're coming up with hare-brained schemes every day."

Duopoly stations want to be able to switch any show they buy from one outlet to the other at their discretion. That option is already built into the CBS O&Os' widespread pick-up of the upcoming Crossing Over With John Edward
and the strip version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
"Oh, yeah," the Viacom stations are "absolutely" looking to have programming flexibility, says the company's programming chief, Tom Zappala. "I mean, why not?"

He admits that no one really knows what the exact advantages will be in moving shows around. With Fox just added to the mix—the group still hasn't made any firm scheduling moves—results won't be evident until months into the new season.

But potential benefits seem evident. Duopoly stations will be able to use a second showing of a syndicated hit at one station to prop up a sagging time period at the other. Or the stations can use both channels to experiment with time periods and compatible programs. Viacom and others are looking at spreading shows across stations to maximize the audience.

For example, starting Aug. 27, Crossing Over
will run on Viacom's two Detroit stations, CBS affiliate WWJ-TV and UPN station WKBD-TV. This fall, Seinfeld
will play on Hearst-Argyle's KCWE-TV (UPN) concurrent with its initial run on the group's KMBC-TV (ABC) in Kansas City, Mo. Fox, among other things, wants Carsey-Werner Distribution's 3rd Rock From the Sun
to play on both stations in some markets.

Apparently, it's simpler to win such deal points with unproven series, like Studios USA's Crossing Over, than with series whose contracts were set before duopolies became legal.

Syndicators can get better ad dollars from the cumed ratings of the multiple program runs. But Carsey-Werner syndication head Bob Raleigh worries that flip-flopping programs over two channels confuses viewers: "When they've always watched a show in one spot and they see it turn up on another station, how does that affect the longevity of the show?"

Syndicators also fret over the idea of selling shows at two-for-one prices.

"The way the conversation usually starts is that they'd like to pay nothing more," notes one syndication executive. The executive points out that, if, for instance, a duopoly station wanted to air another episode of a high-profile series in early fringe on its second station at a significant discount, "I'm not going to be inclined to give it to them. Normally, a news lead-in goes for a fortune."

In most instances, duopoly stations and syndicators agree to a set fee for each show, with a double run as part of the package. That way, it's positioned for play on the other station if the group wants to make that move.

But "there are no golden rules," adds the executive. "We take everything on a case-by- case basis."

Recent maneuvering includes jumping WBZ-TV's CBS soap block to WSBK-TV for one day, so WBZ-TV's local news could cover a memorial service for kids who had died in a school- bus accident. Also, the late-night second run of Paramount's Entertainment Tonight
on WBZ-TV will skip over to early fringe on WSBK-TV this fall.

So far, it seems that the duopoly stations are getting their way. WBZ-TV/WSBK-TV's Kinberg insists that "no one has said flat-out no to anything yet."

Of course, less red tape is involved when Viacom stations bump an in-house Paramount or a CBS network program. But, apparently, a lot of the syndicators can be swayed if the right carrot is dangled in front of them.

A station sales source overseeing some duopoly arrangements points out that syndicators will often approve a time slot on the lesser station of the duopoly—mainly UPN stations—in hopes that the show will have a shot at eventually landing on the healthier sister outlet: "It kind of gets the deal done."