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Fast Track

Ratings Race Begins Anew

Battle in 18-49 is likely to heat up beginning now

By Ben Grossman

The networks' return to new programming this week kicks off the back stretch of what should be another hotly contested race for the adult 18-49 ratings crown.

And this month, the industry finds out the answer to the annual question of whether Fox's ratings behemoth American Idol will finally slow down.

ABC got some modest early returns last Wednesday, when it debuted two comedies. Knights of Prosperity averaged a 3.0 rating/8 share and In Case of Emergency pulled a 2.7/7. Both were up against a Louisiana State-Notre Dame college football bowl game on Fox that did a 5.2/14.

“We wanted the [ratings] number for Knights to have a 'three' in front of it, and it did,” says ABC scheduling chief Jeff Bader. “It was a hard decision whether to premiere it against football or wait a week and have just one airing before Idol.”

This week, NBC will get a look at how its reality block of Grease: You're the One That I Want and The Apprentice debuts in place of Sunday Night Football. While ratings predictions from industry insiders for Grease ranged anywhere from a 2 to a 7, most forecasts for The Apprentice were on the low end of that range.

This week marks the debut of CBS reality series Armed & Famous, which follows a group of C-level “celebrities” through police-academy training in a show that on the surface seems more suited to a summer run.

While next week brings the return of Idol to Fox on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, it also marks the return of the network's other major midseason asset, 24, on Mondays. That sets up the most interesting head-to-head matchup of the new year. 24 will compete directly with NBC's rookie hit Heroes on Mondays at 9.

Fox also announced plans for a second series featuring Hell's Kitchen star Gordon Ramsay. But it's bidding farewell to Warner Bros.' The O.C. in its fourth season, after the Feb. 22 episode.

On the cable side, FX saw a decent performance for the Jan. 2 premiere of Dirt. The hour-long commercial-free episode at 10 p.m. averaged 3.7 million total viewers and 2.4 million viewers in the 18-49 demographic, according to live-plus-same day data from Nielsen Media Research. An 11 p.m. encore averaged 1.3 million total viewers and 800,000 adults 18-49.

Additional reporting by Anne Becker and Jim Benson

Adelphia Payback Finally Approved

A Federal Bankruptcy Court judge last week approved the debtor-repayment plan of Adelphia Communications to dole out $10.7 billion of the $12.7 billion it owes.

The sum represents 84% of the outstanding claims. Judge Robert E. Gerber said virtually all creditors had voted for it, the seventh such plan proposed. The money to repay the debt comes from the $17.6 billion that Time Warner and Comcast ponied up for the cable systems after the scandal-plagued company declared bankruptcy in 2002.—John Eggerton

Pelosi To Meet With C-SPAN

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has offered to meet with C-SPAN to discuss a possible compromise on the cable-funded network's proposal to take control of its coverage of the House chamber. Right now, the speaker controls the cameras.

In a Dec. 22 letter responding to C-SPAN's request for a change, Pelosi said that the “dignity and decorum” of the House would be “best served by maintaining the current system of televised proceedings.”

But after declining to provide a response to a USA Today editorial on her decision, Pelosi modified that stance and told the paper she planned to meet with C-SPAN chief Brian Lamb to look for some middle ground. That could happen as early as this week.—John Eggerton

Setanta Sports Taps Roger Hall as CEO

Network extends U.S. rights to English soccer league

By Ben Grossman

Setanta Sports North America is scheduled to announce on Jan. 8 the hiring of Roger Hall as CEO. The international sports network will also announce soon that it has extended its U.S. rights to broadcast soccer matches from the English Premier League through 2010.

It already has a carriage deal with DirecTV, but Hall, who has been developing channels internationally for the parent company since 2001, says his first order of business is expanding the footprint: “Priorities one, two and three are distribution.”

He's in discussions with cable operators and Dish Network.

Whereas NFL Network is fighting for basic carriage, Hall is positioning Setanta as a premium pay service. On cable, Setanta may opt to make content available as a part of subscription video-on-demand.

NYT Finds Stations Buyer

Private-equity firm Oak Hill Capital Partners last week agreed to pay $575 million for nine stations owned by The New York Times Co. The deal should close later this year. The company said in September that it was looking for a buyer for its stations.

The sale price represents a 13.3 times multiple on $43 million of EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), according to Prudential Equity Group analyst Steven N. Barlow.

The nine stations are a mix of NBC, CBS, ABC and MyNetworkTV affiliates in midsize markets, including WNEP Scranton, Pa. (a profile of the market appears on page 22).

Oak Hill Capital Partners, founded by Texas billionaire Robert M. Bass, was part of a consortium that unsuccessfully attempted to purchase the Knight Ridder newspaper chain last March. Its investors include Microsoft's Bill Gates.—Michael Malone

TWC To Carry Fox Biz Channel

Time Warner Cable struck a deal to carry the new Fox business channel, assuming it launches. The accord was part of a long-term deal between the two companies that also extended Time Warner's carriage of Fox News Channel and the Speed channel, granted TWC retransmission consent of Fox's TV stations, and provided carriage of the Fox Reality Channel, according to a Time Warner representative.

News Corp. has said it wouldn't launch the business channel—a long-delayed planned spinoff of Fox News—unless it had 30 million subscribers, so Time Warner Cable's 23 million is a big step forward.—Anne Becker

Pennestri Gets Key Sales Role for Reed

Reed Business Information (RBI) last week named Donna Pennestri the managing director, television, for the Variety Group of publications and Websites.

In her new role, she will oversee sales strategy, business development and growth in the Western U.S. for advertising in Broadcasting & Cable, Daily Variety, Weekly Variety and Multichannel News, both print and online.

She will still manage East Coast sales and development for Variety titles. Pennestri had been co-director of sales for the Varizety-branded titles.

Also, Variety upped Robin Nagle and Katie Rosa to sales executives in the TV group, reporting to Pennestri. Nagle had served on Variety's tactical team; Rosa covered recruitment and classified advertising for the TV titles.

“In organizing our West Coast TV sales for all of our businesses under Donna, we are focusing on what serves our customers best,” says Charlie Koones, president/publisher of the Variety Group. “With Donna and her team coordinating marketing options across our titles, television businesses get the world's best products and the industry's best marketing consultants.”