Steadily declining viewership has led Fox and Greg Meidel to come up with a Plan C for MyNetworkTV that seems to make sense for it and its beleagured affiliates–proven off-net syndicated fare. And now that Feb. 18 has come and gone and the Earth is still spinning on its axis, maybe the Obama administration’s rush to push back the digital transition wasn’t really that critical after all.
In May 2006, Fox’s MyNetworkTelevision put on an upfront show in a Manhattan theater, trying to whip up some enthusiasm among advertisers and viewers for its debut season that fall.
The event started with a clip from the movie Young Frankenstein, in which Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) ties unsuccessfully to jump start the monster (Peter Boyle) with a bolt of lighting.
“We did not mean to imply by that video clip that a competing network recently assembled with the parts of two dead networks was a monster or even a bad idea for that matter,” Fox’s TV station overlord Roger Ailes said when he took the stage.
“It’s just not a new idea. I believe if you want to be successful and make history, you have to find a way to be different.”
Despite Ailes’ disclaimer, the clip was an obvious (and, I’ll say, clever) poke at the CW, the competing network that CBS and Warner Bros. had cobbled together from the still vital parts of The WB and UPN.
In so doing, CBS and Warner Bros. had cast adrift mostly old UPN affiliates, which found themselves scrambling to fill primetime. Fox rode to the rescue, rounding up the abandoned affiliates into MNT.
Its new idea for the network was first-run English-language telenovelas, a blend of action, intrigue and bodice-ripping good times that would seduce viewers in the U.S. just has they had for years in Latin countries.
We all know what happened next. The telenovelas were a bust and before the first season had ended, the Fox powers had called in veteran programmer Greg Meidel to come up with a new plan. It was built around reality shows and other low-cost original fare.
That didn’t work either, so it has now moved to Plan C, laid out in some detail in our cover story by Arthur Greenwald this Wednesday.
Plan C is to fill primetime with proven (but not exclusive) syndicated shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent that it can acquire on a barter basis. The move from original to syndicated product will also allow Fox to cut its expenses to the bone — no program development, no sales, no promotion.
It’s not exactly programming that will “make history” as Ailes promised, but as the key MNT affiliates seem to recognize, it’s better than nothing.
As part of the MNT consortium, the affiliates will get better programming than they could acquire on their own without the actual expense of getting it, they will benefit from a solid schedule in which programs can promote one another and they will be able to continue to brand themselves (and think of themselves) as network affiliates.
And, most important, they will continue to have hope. Perhaps one happy day, when 17 million cars are being sold in the U.S. and revenue is flowing once again, Fox and the MNT affiliates will throw some money into a pot and offer some license fees for better syndicated shows. And, if that works, perhaps Fox will gamble on some original shows again.
“First we must succeed in primetime,” says Meidel in the wrap-up in our story. “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.”
The MNT affiliates desperately need the network or the “program distribution service” to succeed. Let’s hope that Meidel and his Fox bosses find a way.
But the joke is on Ailes, isn’t it?
While the CW has carved out a nice niche for itself among women 18-34, Ailes’ venture is the one being cobbled together with old parts and looking for a jolt of something to get it moving.
Did you notice?
Four hundred and twenty one stations made the switch to digital last Tuesday at midnight — the original deadline –and most people didn’t.
There was no outcry, no mobs of angry torch-bearing villagers (to continue with today’s Frankenstein theme) and no calls for the heads of the pols responsible for the lost of analog TV service.
Oh, there was the story about the guy who shot his TV set because he couldn’t get his converter box to work. But his wife told police he had been drinking and, by today, talk about the transition had pretty much disappeared from the popular press.
On Wednesday, more than 25,000 people did call the FCC hot line with questions about lost service, lousy reception and converter boxes they couldn’t quite figure out how to work.
That may seem like a big number, but its represents just a tiny fraction of the 12.4 million homes in the markets affected by the Tuesday turnoff.
The FCC received more than 27,000 calls the day before and I’m sure it will continue to receive thousands of calls in the days ahead as people continue to try to figure out how to maintain their broadcast service.
But still, such numbers are, as the FCC said on Thursday, “encouraging.”
With help from the broadcasting and cable industries and extra money from Congress, the FCC has demonstrated that it should be able to handle the job when the big switch comes on June 12.
On that day, around 1,200 TV stations serving more than 100 million homes will pull the plug on digital. That’s roughly nine times the homes as last Tuesday. So, based on this week’s experience, nine times as many people — 225,000 — may be looking for answers on or around June 12.
But that’s OK. I’m told that the FCC’s IBM-operated call center at full throttle is designed to handle 2 million calls during the week of the transition and 400,000 the day after the switch.
So, 225,000 is doable.
Of course, there are a lot of variables floating around in this equation that could drive the number higher or lower.
For instance, during this week’s transition, in most markets, not all the stations made the transition. That probably tends to discourage calls. People are less apt to take action if they are still able to get some of their favorite stations and programs.
On the other hand, by June 12, the populace will have been subjected to 113 more days of incessant warnings about the DTV transition and what you must do to avoid losing service.
Let’s be conservative and say the 300,000 people call on June 13, the day after the final switch. Again, the number should be doable, especially given that the broadcasting and cable industries are prepared to provide supplemental call-center capacity if needed.
(A note of caution: The FCC’s call center protocol is to relay calls that need local attention to stations and other local call centers. Broadcasters, especially those in large markets, will need to prepare for a flood of calls.)
It all kind makes you wonder whether the Obama administration overreacted in calling on Congress to move the final deadline to June 12.
My guess is that, yes, it did.
We could have struck with Feb. 17. It would have been messy, but we would now be in mop up mode and many hard-pressed broadcasters would have been spared the expense of having to maintain analog facilities and educate the public for four more months.
When the Obama transition team first started talking to the broadcasters and cable operators about the DTV transition last December, it wanted to know whether this was going to be Y2K or Katrina.
I think we know the answer now: Y2K.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at [email protected]