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After failing with telenovelas and low-cost original programming, MNT plans to offer proven off-network programming as a "program distribution service." It hopes the plan will boost ratings while allowing it to cut costs in development, sales and promotion. "The traditional network business model just doesn't work for us," says President Greg Meidel.

Unlike the auto and banking industries, broadcast networks are not in line for federal bailouts. So the last-place network is bailing itself out — right out of the network business.

After struggling for two-and-a-half seasons with minuscule ratings, the News Corp.-owned My Network TV last week announced that it was restructuring itself as a “program distribution service.”

The move is aimed at accomplishing the neat trick of slashing costs while boosting ratings.

“The traditional network business model just doesn’t work for us,” says MNT President Greg Meidel after a week of selling the plan to affiliates. “That’s why we’ve come up with this hybrid model that combines the best features of syndication and network distribution.”

“We’ll deliver the best of a national program service with the economies of the syndication business,” he says. 

In essence, MNT will be acquiring proven off-network programming and distributing it to its affiliate lineup of 180 stations on a network-like schedule. In the process, it will jettison its development, sales and promotion staff, relying on the outside syndicators to provide those services along with their programs.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

“It’s very difficult and expensive to create a hit no matter what network you are,” says Frank Cicha, senior vice president of programming for the Fox Television Stations, which contributes 10 stations to the MNT lineup and accounts for 26 percent of its household coverage.

Original network fare can cost as much as $4 million per episode for an hour drama, to around $1 million for an “economical” reality show. “And then you have to spend a lot just to build awareness,” adds Cicha.

Instead, the new MNT will emphasize shows that need no costly introduction, and obtain them chiefly through barter. Fridays will continue to feature its most dependable performer — WWE Smackdown.

Another night will be filled with two episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which currently runs both on NBC and its cable cousin the USA Network.

If all goes according to plan, the change in strategy should have little functional impact on affiliates, which will continue to brand themselves with local variations on the network name (e.g., “My9 New York,” “My13LA,” etc.)

So far, the affiliate reaction has been positive.

“Both Criminal Intent and Smackdown are branded, well-known shows that have already succeeded with over 100 episodes,” says Diane Sutter, owner of WZMY Boston (DMA 7), one of the largest MNT affiliates outside the Fox family. “We know people like to watch these shows. And the advertising split will remain the same.”

Currently, affiliates and MNTV each get seven minutes of inventory per hour except on Friday, when the network airs Smackdown and takes nine  minutes, leaving five for affiliates. Beginning next fall, the network minutes will be retained and sold by the program syndicators. Saturday nights, currently programmed by MNT, will revert to the stations.

Meidel views the switch as a win not only for MNT and its affiliates, but also for syndicators by giving them a primetime broadcast outlet for shows that until now have seen only limited weekend play.

“For the first time, we’re offering the syndication community brand new beachfront property — day-and-date, Monday-through-Friday distribution to 97 percent of the country,” Meidel says.

What’s more, the fact that MNT continues to look and feel like a network lends cross-promotional punch to syndicated fare. “We can make sure the 8 p.m. show promotes 9 p.m., which promotes the next day.”

Since making the announcement, Meidel and Executive Vice President Paul Franklin have been inundated with phone calls and presentations by leading syndicators. In addition to Criminal Intent, says Franklin, “we’re looking to build a solid schedule of contemporary shows that can play in a block.”

“Another big drama or two would be great,” says Fox Stations’ Cicha, who has yet to decide whether the two weekly hours of Criminal Intent will run together on one night or adjacent to other dramas. “We’d also love to have a comedy night.”

Typically, stations lack the flexibility or clout to negotiate weekly runs for top off-network shows as cable networks do. Lifetime, for instance, now telecasts the CBS hit How I Met Your Mother on Monday nights. But MNT’s new strategy opens up a wide range of possibilities.

Cicha would like to see programming like NBCU’s The Office, Twentieth’s My Name Is Earl or even Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams Show — shows that are headed for the Fox-owned stations this fall through normal syndication channels.

Even so, the departure from the familiar network model is unsettling for some stations, all of whom are required to execute a new contract terminating their present affiliate status and partnering with Master Distribution Service Inc., the new legal name of MNT.

Speaking on background, one station group executive, responsible for one of the largest MNT affiliates, expressed difficulty understanding why MNT made such a big deal about announcing a mainly internal matter. “I think they publicly diminished the brand.”

WZMY’s Sutter voiced concern that the former five-year contract is now a one-year agreement, but Franklin portrays this as merely a clerical choice to make it easier to synchronize contractual language between station and syndicator contracts. “We expect MNT to continue on forever,” Franklin says.

Scott Blumenthal, executive vice president of LIN TV, which owns six MNT affiliates, would also prefer a longer agreement, but says he “understands that like any business they need to see what works and be able to make adjustments.”

Blumenthal says that LIN is actively weighing its options for once again filling Saturday nights, possibly with original programming. “We’ll want to be sure that whatever we produce is not just a cookie cutter solution but fits the unique needs of each of our markets,” he says.

This is the second time Meidel has overseen a major strategic shift since he joined MNT about six months after its launch. The “netlet” was born of necessity to fill the primetime void left when CBS shuttered UPN to partner in the CW. Meidel inherited a six-night schedule filled with two one-hour telenovellas stripped Monday through Saturday earning anemic ratings.

Meidel moved quickly to replace one night at a time with a mixture of comedies and movies, which performed only marginally better, even when reality show were added to the mix. But fortunes improved when last spring, Meidel snagged WWE Smackdown after the CW failed to renew the popular wrestling show.

“In one year we’re up 57 percent in adults 18-49 compared to a year ago,” Meidel says. Indeed in February 2007, MNT was ranked 37th among broadcast and cable networks for adult viewers in prime time. “Today we’re No. 10, but that’s not enough,” says Meidel, who believes his new lineup of “tried and true” shows could well achieve triple-digit growth.

“Look at any of the top 10 dramas in broadcast syndication,” he says. “Everything from CSI on the high end to Boston Legal performs much better than any of the original programs we’ve run so far on My Network TV. Plus these shows are 100 percent advertiser-friendly.”

Meidel and Cicha say they’re not worried if these shows continue to run on cable networks — and that it is much too soon to think about negotiating for exclusivity. Likewise, the MNT management declined to speculate about plans to program any other dayparts or to return to original programming.

“First we must succeed in primetime,” says Meidel. “We intend to have the best of off-network, the best repurposed shows, and when it makes sense, we will once again have the best first-run shows, too.”


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