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Fast Track

Pax Retreats From Prime Time; NBC Annoyed

Ailing Pax TV will virtually cease entertainment programming and instead load its schedule with infomercials, which is drawing protests from 32%-owner NBC Universal.

Paxson Communications Corp. said in a securities filing that it plans to “substantially reduce or eliminate our sales of spot advertisements that are based on audience ratings.”

The company added, “We are not currently investing substantial additional amounts in new entertainment programming and are evaluating other programming strategies and opportunities that might be available to us that could improve our cash flow.”

The company plans to subsist primarily on infomercials and direct-response and other paid programming.

That annoyed NBC, which is responsible for selling advertising on Pax TV stations in markets where they both have outlets.

“Paxson apparently intends to abandon network programming and rely primarily on infomercials, direct-response advertising and paid programming as revenue sources,” NBC said in a statement.

Paxson cut approximately 50 staffers in February, with the majority of job losses coming in the Pax TV network programming side.—J.M.H.

Fair and Balanced Phone Service

Sprint PCS has signed a deal to provide Fox News live over its cellphone TV service.

Unlike cellphone services that offer snippets of TV programming that can be summoned on demand, Fox News will be available live in real time.

Fox News will be added to Sprint TV's existing package, which costs subscribers $9.99 monthly.

Fox will be paid an undisclosed fee per subscriber, just as the network is paid by cable operators.—J.M.H.

Comcast, Time Warner Snag Adelphia

The months-long auction of Adelphia Communications Corp. has finally concluded, with the bankrupt cable operator agreeing to sell the company to Time Warner Inc. and Comcast Corp. for $17.6 billion.

Adelphia will receive $12.7 billion in cash and 16% of the common stock of Time Warner's cable division, Time Warner Cable.

The deal calls for the two buyers to divvy up Adelphia systems serving 5.2 million subscribers scattered across 31 states. Further, Time Warner and Comcast will swap systems from their existing portfolios to create stronger geographic clusters.

Time Warner will be the largest cable operator in the Los Angeles market, in which it has been a relatively small player. Comcast will substantially strengthen its position in South Florida, with nearly every cable system from the Florida Keys north to West Palm Beach.

But unloading existing systems means that Comcast will exit Dallas, Los Angeles and suburban Cleveland. Time Warner Cable will leave Minneapolis, Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss.

From the Adelphia portfolio, Time Warner will get systems in upstate New York, most notably Buffalo; California; Cleveland; North and South Carolina; and Maine. Comcast will get Adelphia systems in South Florida, suburban Washington; Vermont; suburban Boston and Hartford, Conn.; Pennsylvania; and Colorado Springs, Colo.—J.M.H.

No CBS for Stewart

If there were ever serious consideration of giving the CBS Evening News anchor chair, or one of the chairs, to comic Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central's Daily Show, Stewart put the kibosh on it on Access Hollywood last week.

“That is not happening,” Stewart says. “The news can use a lot of things, but I don't think I'm one of them, so I'll stick with what I'm doing. So that is a definite no.” CBS Chairman Les Moonves kept the Stewart rumor mill turning during the January press tour when he twice declined to rule out a role for Stewart on the Evening News, which CBS is looking to reformat to attract a younger audience, including perhaps a multi-anchor format.—J.E.

No Stewart for CBS

CBS has pulled the Martha Stewart biopic from its May sweeps lineup.

The network had recently decided to slate the show opposite the finales of American Idol and Lost, though that would seem to have been a guarantee for less audience than almost any other time period. Perhaps it was planning to counterprogram to its older demo.

Martha Behind Bars (starring Cybill Shepherd) was originally scheduled to air on May 25, the last night of the sweeps. Instead, the network will run Amber Frey: Witness for the Prosecution, starring West Wing's Janel Moloney.

CBS said it would announce a new Martha air date “at a later time.”—J.E.

Susquehanna Dishes Off Media Properties

The owner of Susquehanna Media Co., which operates cable TV systems in six states, as well as 33 radio stations, is putting the company up for sale.

Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff Co., a private family-owned company also known for its dishware, said Wednesday it plans to sell most of its businesses because no one in the family was willing to step up to the plate and take over.

Company chairman Louis J. Appell Jr. said the decision to sell was “difficult and carefully considered.” UBS Investment Bank is managing the hunt for Susquehanna Media's buyer.

A third division, Susquehanna Real Estate, won't be part of any sale. The Pfaltzgraff Co. subsidiary is the oldest continuously operating pottery manufacturer in the U.S. Its china and flatware are wedding registry favorites.

Susquehanna Media's cable operations serve 230,000 subscribers, most of them in York, Pa., and Williamsport, Pa. Its radio stations operate primarily in San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Mo., and Indianapolis.—B.M.

DBS Makes Urban Gains

DBS is enjoying its most rapid subscribership gains in the urban and suburban areas once dominated by cable operators.

Between 2001 and 2004, DBS penetration in urban areas grew 50% and now stands at 13% of households, according to a report issued by the Government Accountability Office on April 21. Lawmakers asked GAO to report on the factors that influence DBS and cable adoption across the country.

In suburban areas, satellite subscribership grew 32% to now stand at 18% of households. By contrast, satellite-TV penetration in rural areas grew 15%. Despite the slower growth, DBS penetration is still highest in rural communities and now stands at 29% of households.—B.M.

Content Piracy Bill Passes House

The House has passed on voice vote the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act.

The bill, which now goes to the president's desk, will crack down on the illegal distribution of pirated copies of movies and songs but allow technologies like ClearPlay to sanitize copies of films, DVDs or TV shows without violating copyright laws.

The bill lacks the deal-killer provision of its previous incarnation, when language was added to prevent the skipping of commercials.

The bill criminalizes the sort of piracy that creates bootlegged copies of films—sold on street corners or downloaded on computers—sometimes even before they are released, though more often after they have been secretly copied in theaters. It could also cover the pirating and distribution of a TV show before its release.

The bill exempts from copyright infringement the technologies that sanitize DVDs and films, so long as they are sanitizing an authorized copy and so long as no “fixed” copy is produced by the sanitizing process.

Public Knowledge, the group that has pushed for fair-use protections of copying technologies, did not oppose the bill, although it was checking out language that targeted Internet distribution of those pirated copies. The Senate passed the bill back in February.—J.E.

No Station-Shopping Spree for ABC

ABC's owned-and-operated station group is likely to remain much smaller than that of rival networks, but that's no problem for stations chief Walter Liss.

Speaking April 18 at A.G. Edwards' media investor conference, Liss said prices for large-market stations remain too high for ABC to expand anytime soon. Liss added that Disney looks at station buys all the time but the prices don't make sense. “It is one of the reasons we haven't done duopoly deals. Not that there is anything wrong with a duopoly. But if you pay too much for it, then there is a lot wrong with that from a financial standpoint.”—J.M.H.

Everyboby Loves a Marathon

In case you hadn't heard, Everybody Loves Raymond is ending its nine-year run on CBS May 16. And B&C has learned that King World, never one to let a momentous event go by unnoticed, will offer special sweeps episodes of the top-rated off-net sitcom, including a four-hour marathon.

Each night during the week of May 2, King World will air favorite episodes of the cast, such as “The Letter” (Ray Romano), “The Shower” (Patricia Heaton), “Lucky Suit” (Brad Garrett), “Grandpa Steals” (Peter Boyle) and “Ray's Journal” (Doris Roberts).

On the weekend prior to the network finale, King World has cleared a marathon of back-to-back episodes in 88% of the U.S., including all top-50 markets. Executive producer Phil Rosenthal and Ray Romano handpicked the marathon episodes, which will include a one-minute introduction by a member of the cast or a show writer.

Daily episodes during the week of May 16 will showcase famous firsts. On the day of the network finale, the pilot episode will air in syndication. Other themed episodes that week will include “She's the One,” which achieved the series' first Emmy for Best Comedy Series, and “Debra Makes Something Good,” featuring the first time the character actually had success in the kitchen. —J.B.

Sports Guy to Executive-Produce 'Today' Show

NBC turned to its sports division in an effort to revive its ailing Today Show franchise, naming an executive producer whose background is primarily in covering the Olympics.

The network named Jim Bell executive producer of Today, replacing the recently axed Tom Touchet. Bell comes from the sports side of NBC, most recently serving as coordinating producer of NBC's Olympics coverage.

He has been with the network since 1990 as, among other things, a producer for NBC's broadcasts of football, basketball, baseball and tennis coverage. Along the way, he has picked up six Emmys in various production categories, though none of them in news.

The network has also named MSNBC VP of prime time Phil Griffin to a senior post at NBC News. Griffin will now serve as senior VP of NBC News and “executive-in-charge” of Today. Bell will report not to Griffin but to NBC News President Neal Shapiro.

Touchet's job had been at risk for months, with NBC executives increasingly anxious over its ratings slide. The show is still No. 1 and a huge profit center for NBC, but its audience has been slipping while ABC's Good Morning America has come on strong, threatening to overtake Today in the ratings.—J.M.H.


The April 18 cover should have carried the following photo credit: Getty Images/Digital Vision.