Operators Prepare to Ante Up for TV Land

NEW YORK -Cable operators have enjoyed a free ride for TV Land, the retro home of vintage sitcoms and action shows. But that's coming to an end next year.

In 2001, MSOs will start paying license fees for the 53 million subscriber network, which next year plans to increase its level of original programming.

The rate card kicks in under the original affiliation agreements TV Land forged with distributors back in April 1996, when the channel launched as a kind of 24-hour version of Nick at Nite.

Under those charter deals, MSOs could opt to carry TV Land-part of Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks unit-for free for five years, while pocketing $1.20 per subscriber in marketing support. That was the most popular deal, although operators could also get TV Land for free for only three years along with $2 per subscriber in marketing support, according to one cable- industry source.

Last week at the UBS Warburg LLC Media Conference, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone pointed out that operators would have to start paying for TV Land next year. Viacom would look to "accelerate" those license fees over time, he added.

Back in 1996, TV Land's contract had the coming 2001 rate card attached. The monthly license fee was 8 to 9 cents per subscriber, the source said, with an annual increase of 1 cent per year.

"It's not a surprise," said one operator of the coming TV Land charges.

MTVN officials declined to comment on TV Land's license fees.

TV Land, which was headed by Rich Cronin before he left for a brief stint as president of Fox Family Channel, has performed strongly in its nearly five years of existence. In fact, the channel is expected to turn a profit early next year and is way ahead of its business plan, according to executive vice president and general manager Larry Jones.

"The network couldn't be going better, from a brand standpoint, from a ratings standpoint and from a distribution standpoint," Jones said. "There's a huge audience that's dissatisfied with the other TV options out there. We're TV satisfaction guaranteed."

Officials expect TV Land to be in 55 million homes by year-end and in 58 million to 60 million by the end of 2001. The network will roll out in the next few weeks on Time Warner Cable systems in Garden City, Calif.; Cincinnati; Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wis., and Overland Park, Kan.; on Comcast Corp. in Wilmington, Del.; and on AT&T Broadband's system in Marin County, Calif.

Regarding Viacom and MTV Networks' progress with TV Land, one cable-industry source said: "They've had a pretty good run with it."

TV Land this year expanded into the original programming arena, commissioning four Inside TV Land
specials, including one on The Honeymooners.
Next year, TV Land will air six to eight Inside TV Land
installments, with the first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show
in March, according to Jones.

TV Land also plans to produce several pilots next year, and hopes to launch two or three original series by the fourth quarter of 2001. Inside TV Land
will be one of those series, Jones said.

"These will be TV shows about TV shows," he said, in that they will cater to the viewer who wants to know the inside story on how their favorite shows were produced.

Back in 1996, TV Land kicked off with an unusual advertising strategy. First, it gave affiliates three minutes of local avails an hour to sell, instead of the then-typical two minutes. TV Land said it wouldn't sell national advertising until it had 20 million subscribers or until October 1997, whichever came first. In fact, it began airing national ads in October 1997.

In the meantime, instead of paid national advertising, TV Land ran vintage "retromercials." It still runs some retromercials as a programming element, a TV Land spokesman said.

At this point in its tenure, TV Land is posting a solid ratings performance. In the third quarter, TV Land tallied a 0.7 rating in primetime, down 13 percent from a 0.8 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research. But in total day, TV Land garnered a 0.5 rating, up 25 percent from a 0.4 a year ago.

In TV Land's demographic, 25- to 54-year-olds, year to date in primetime TV Land ranks No. 10, Jones said.

TV Land's lineup includes fare such as Charlie's Angels, Barney Miller, Leave It to Beaver, The Honeymooners, Hogan's Heroes
and Adam-12.
Nick at Nite, with its well-packaged reruns, aims for a younger 18-to-49-year-old audience.

TV Land recently added Barney Miller
and The Odd Couple
to its schedule, and early next year it will begin airing The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Get Smart
and Chico and the Man.

Mike Farrell contributed to this story.