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Tribune Eyes New Strip

When Dick Askin, longtime president/CEO of Tribune Entertainment Co. (TEC), departed last spring, there was concern that the company would fold. But TEC is sending the message that it’s still in the game by developing a fall 2007 companion strip for FremantleMedia North America’s Family Feud, which it distributes.

TEC executives are bullish about the company’s future. “When you look at Dick’s exit and what he had meant to the company in terms of our first-run strategy, it can create some compelling rumors,” says Executive VP/General Manager L. Clark Morehouse III. “But we are now a different company in a sense.”

In the months following Askin’s departure, Morehouse, head of ad sales, took over the company’s non-programming assets. Senior VP Marc Schacher, Tribune Broadcasting’s longtime programming/development executive, gained control of TEC’s development. Producers are hopeful the moves signal closer cooperation between the Chicago-based broadcaster and its entertainment division in Hollywood, which appeared to be at odds over the years.

Family Feud, for example, appears on other stations in markets where TEC owns outlets. Now TEC is understood to be working closely with FremantleMedia to pick another format from its extensive Goodson-Todman library to pair with it. Feud and its new companion would compete next year with a pair of game shows on tap from Sony Pictures Television (SPT) and King World, a remake of The Joker’s Wild and newcomer Combination Lock. If all get the greenlight, it would double the size of the game segment from three to six.

TEC is also partnered with FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment on American Idol Rewind, a one-hour repackaged highlight series premiering in September.

While declining to discuss specific development projects, Schacher says the station and entertainment wings intend to be “opportunistic” in devising first-run programming. That could eventually include TEC’s developing its own projects again if the economics are right. The company exited the weekly action-hour business in recent years when international demand dried up for series like Andromeda and Mutant X. Its last successful strip was Geraldo over a decade ago. For the past few years, Tribune has partnered with independent suppliers, most recently with Sony Pictures Television on this fall’s syndicated talk show hosted by author/comedian Greg Behrendt.

TEC’s partnership strategy stems from necessity. Major studios can more easily conceal the $7 million-$8 million blow from a first-run flop by selling rights to their film and TV libraries. Without its own library, TEC doesn’t have that luxury, especially as part of a financially troubled media empire.

Instead of investing cash, TEC gives up time periods on its top-market TV stations, a valuable commodity to independent suppliers like Sony, which lack their own broadcast outlets.

But when it comes to its national barter sales operation, TEC is on equal footing with numerous competitors vying for business from third-party producers. To grow, observers say, Tribune needs to prove its resolve with clients by producing results in a tough advertising climate. First, they insist, it must overcome parent Tribune’s cautious Midwestern corporate culture.

Morehouse, who will continue to lead ad sales, is confident that he can “make us a leader in ad sales and distribution.” Tribune Entertainment’s list of programs includes the educational/informational DIC Kids’ Network, Soul Train and Dream Works movie packages. It also sells barter for Debmar-Mercury’s South Park.

Morehouse is enjoying his expanded role: “I tell people that I have been auditioning for this job most of my adult life.”