WB 100+ Attracts Rival

TV station executives were left grumbling last week when Warner Bros. sold two syndicated talk shows to The WB's 100+. Soon, though, they may have a way to challenge the small-market giant.

When Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution cleared its upcoming The Sharon Osbourne Show
and The Ellen DeGeneres Show
into the WB 100+—a collection of cable channels in 111 small markets—it blocked broadcast TV stations in those markets from bidding for either show. Now Raycom Media is spearheading an effort to band together small-market stations and compete with The WB's buying power.

Mary Carole McDonnell, the top programmer for the Raycom station group, has recruited about 40 Fox affiliate stations to a buying clearinghouse. Under her plan, when a syndicated show comes up, small-market stations would submit bids to her. She, in turn, would go to the studios with an aggregate bid.

"There are only five shows right now that are a firm go, and they've taken two out of the mix already [for small-market stations]," said McDonnell.

She envisions the group's bidding on shows within two months.

Some station executives are receptive to the idea but want to make sure it's practical.

"Each market is so uniquely different," said Granite Broadcasting COO John Dueshane. "What works for one market wouldn't be the same for a different station." Granite owns stations in Fort Wayne, Ind., Peoria-Bloomington, Ill., and Duluth, Minn./Superior, Wis.—markets 102, 110 and 134, respectively.

McDonnell intends to ensure flexibility, though. Under her plan, stations would have a choice whether to bid on a given show. That way, she said, "it doesn't take away the autonomy of a station."

Compatibility is not a problem for The WB 100+ group. On its stations, each syndicated show airs at the same time, receives the same marketing support and reaches a fairly consistent demographic. "I don't know another station group that can offer 111 clearances in 111 markets across the board," said Lynn Stepanian, senior vice president of programming and distribution for the group.

Some broadcasters gripe that Warner Bros.' latest arrangement with its corporate cousin is a sweetheart deal. But The WB group's blanket distribution clearly appeals to syndicators: Making sales calls to individual cities is a costly and time-intensive effort, particularly as consolidation squeezes sales forces.

McDonnell added that the clearinghouse also could offer syndicators more-appealing barter deals. Its stations (Fox affiliates so far; CBS, NBC and ABC stations may come on board) would likely have higher ratings than the WB channels in most markets.

John Tupper, owner of a cluster of TV stations in Bismarck, N.D., says WB 100+ is only partly to blame. Small-market stations are experiencing difficulties because syndicators are introducing fewer original shows, he explained, and the flow of good off-network sitcoms is slowing because the networks are ordering more reality shows. Less content "puts more pressure on stations to fill up their time slots."