My Network TV Courting Affiliates

In unveiling My Network TV and its ambitious plan for two hours of original strip programming in prime starting in September, News Corp. described it as the network model “for the 21st century.”

Twentieth Television, which is handling sales and programming for the venture, is looking to clear My Network TV in more than 90% of the country, “making it a strong platform for advertisers to showcase their products,” a spokesman says.

But the hairsplitting about whether My Network TV is actually a network—MediaCom U.S. Chairman Jon Mandel is on record describing it as “a syndicator with a group deal”—could have important implications for potential affiliates seeking prime time-level ad rates.

One executive with a major TV-station group, who asked not to be quoted, sees an upside with My Network TV. The increased nine minutes of Monday-Friday ad inventory it is offering should provide affiliates with at least 70%-80% of normal prime time network pricing, the executive believes.

The so-called 21st century network can trace its roots back to the 20th century, following the birth of an ad hoc network called Operation Prime Time (OPT). Essentially a miniseries provider for the then–Chris-Craft stations now owned by Fox, OPT lasted from 1977 to ’85 and was followed by others, including Warner Bros. Domestic Television and Chris-Craft’s Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN). The latter began in 1993 as a potential fifth network with two hours of programming per night, aimed at a consortium of 177 affiliates covering 93% of the U.S. and helping finance it.

But with nearly half its roster comprising Fox affiliates, PTEN, which was criticized for keeping nine minutes of ad inventory per hour, was forced in year two to schedule shows around Fox’s expanding prime time slate, then five nights a week. It restructured its station deals, releasing affiliates from backend syndication commitments on several series. Given its inability to get prime time-level network ad rates or generate enough international revenue, PTEN slashed production budgets on its shows from $1.2 million-$1.3 million per hour episode to $800,000-$1 million.

In 1995, Chris-Craft pulled out of the venture to align with UPN, and Warner Bros. launched The WB on the Tribune stations. That caused PTEN to morph into a syndication service for first-run series, such as Babylon 5 and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

UPN and The WB, of course, are merging into The CW and competing with My Network TV for stations. To avoid following in the footsteps of PTEN, which folded in 1997, My Network TV is offering potential affiliates nine minutes of commercial time on weekdays, while keeping just five for itself. (New terms reportedly include a 7-7 split on weekends.) The CW has stations bidding to keep only three minutes of ad time per hour and also provide it with reverse compensation—often, payments based on a percentage of revenue. That tactic has drawn the ire of some operators, some which have long paid for The WB programming.

The CW bills its plan as a way for stations to make the most money, since the network will launch on the strength of UPN and WB hits with name recognition.

My Network TV, meanwhile, is pinning its hopes on the new telenovela strip format. To prevent Desire from getting scarred if other networks’ telenovelas fail this summer, Twentieth had shifted its launch date from September to June when syndication was the goal. Since moving to My Network TV, however, the distributor plans to launch Desire and Secrets Sept. 5—at least for the time being.

Additional reporting by Allison Romano