The WB’s Shopping Spree

Acceding to pressure from affiliates to dump afternoon kids shows with young-adult off-network fare in January 2006, The WB will have little chance to benefit from its own studio’s program library.

Warner Bros., which is the network’s primary prime time supplier, has already sold many of the key franchise shows elsewhere, and off-network success has increased the properties’ value, leaving little opportunity for The WB to get them back for the 3-5 p.m. programming block.

The switch has left the network in desperate need of off-network comedies and dramas for the valuable early-fringe real estate. “We’re a victim of our own success,” says The WB Chairman Garth Ancier.

For stations, tight government restrictions prevent their promoting most of their valuable early-evening, access and prime time adult offerings during kids cartoons, and the shows themselves hurt audience flow. And with the kids business faltering, advertising suffered.

“The last two years, the block became increasingly onerous for the station side because no one could sell the inventory, couldn’t give it away except for the fourth quarter,” says a syndication source. “Now, with something even like Gilmore Girls plugged in there, suddenly you could sell that inventory, and it’s found money.”

A Lift for Syndicators

For a long time, The WB opposed dropping the kids block, but now the shopping spree by Ancier and WB Entertainment President David Janollari—which could lead the network to “repurpose” some of its existing prime time shows in the afternoons—has left downtrodden syndicators ecstatic. With Fox and Tribune station groups in the hunt for only a few top-tier sitcoms, programmers have seen demand and prices for the spate of lesser comedies relax in recent years.

The plan under development by Ancier and Janollari, designed to build viewership in the afternoon for top station groups like Tribune and Sinclair, involves acquiring off-net product for January. The WB will place full-season orders for more off-net programming in September 2006 and then rotate new product into the block in the future.

Stations are pleased. “I’ve heard [Ancier and Janollari are] the most popular programming team in Hollywood, the prettiest girls at the prom,” quips Bill Butler, VP of group programming and promotion for Sinclair Broadcasting, who helped lead the campaign to get The WB out of kids programming on weekdays.

Ideally, Ancier would like to schedule two comedies and a drama in the block and is not even thinking now about first-run shows. “These are time periods that have not had adult programming for many years, since the network began,” he says. “We need to learn to crawl before we walk—and get [the block] lit up with some numbers.”

If and when the time comes for first-run, he insists, it will be based on the cost, concept and talent involved in the project—not on whether it comes from Warner Bros.’ Telepictures production unit. Still, The WB could look in-house before approaching other studios to supply original shows.

But as long as the off-network sitcoms keep working, there really won’t be much need to make huge investments in first-run shows until 2007 or ’08 at the earliest—most likely introducing one in the summer when The WB can build on its core 18-34 audience with college kids home from school.

Likely for January

The most likely candidates available for January, according to industry sources, include Warner Bros.-produced shows now on The WB, such as drama Everwood and comedy What I Like About You; Sony Pictures Television’s Dawson’s Creek (which ran on The WB from 1998 to 2003); Paramount’s Charmed (returning this fall); and Twentieth TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (cancelled after leaving The WB for UPN in a heated license-fee battle with Fox) and possibly popular WB Friday-night sitcom Reba.

Currently airing an original on Friday night and multiple repurposed episodes on Sunday evening, The WB would be adding five runs of the comedy throughout the week.

Before that can happen, though, Twentieth would first need to reclaim the series from stations that have acquired it for a fall 2006 broadcast off-net syndication launch—and likely replace it with another comedy on the same level.

The syndicator cleared Reba on Tribune and other station groups for two years starting in fall 2006 on a straight-barter basis and had planned to extend the deals for one year if it did well.

But The WB’s hunger for off-network programs like Reba presents Twentieth with a big opportunity. Sacrificing barter deals with stations and obtaining an all-cash deal with The WB, which would likely be reluctant to give up ad inventory, could help erase the show’s production deficits.

Ancier would not comment on the deal terms The WB is seeking from syndicators, and a Twentieth TV spokesman declined to comment on the entire situation. One industry source, however, contends that Twentieth probably “could not cut a better deal if it took Reba out into syndication.”

Reclaiming Reba

Twentieth also sold the cable run of Reba to Lifetime last year for a reported $300,000-plus per episode, with the series slated to debut in August 2006. The cable network also gave up five 30-second spots to gain cable exclusivity on the comedy for five years, making it the highest-grossing sitcom to come off The WB.

On the eve of the network upfronts in May, news broke that Twentieth was in a testy fight over license fees with The WB concerning Reba and other series. The producer reportedly sought $1.5 million per episode to renew the sitcom, while The WB refused to exceed $1.1 million per half-hour. It also wanted the right to multiple Sunday-evening airings of episodes. Terms were not disclosed when the two sides eventually settled their differences.

Tribune, the largest station group acquiring Reba, is not likely to put up much of a fight if Twentieth moves to take the sitcom back. As a 20% stakeholder in The WB, Tribune, along with powerful WB affiliates Sinclair and Acme Communications, has led the effort pushing the network to get out of the kids business in the first place.

Additional reporting by Ben Grossman