Networks ready for strikes

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

With a weak economy and strikes looming, ad buyers attending last week’s pre-upfront presentations by the broadcast networks said they don’t expect any network to see positive cost-per-thousand increases next season.

“It could be considered a safe bet that the networks will suffer a combined 12 [percent] to 15 percent drop in CPMs next May [after the upfront sales meetings in New York], which would be the first major reversal since the recession of the 1973-74 season,” said one veteran agency buyer, who requested anonymity.

“It is looking pretty bad right now, and imagine what a strike would do to further devaluate the available inventory in the market.”

Another bad sign: Viacom Chairman Mel Karmazin recently said CBS might sell only 50 percent to 65 percent of its fourth-quarter upfront ad inventory and hold the rest for subsequent scatter markets. That strategy might backfire. “Judging from the current weakness of the scatter marketplace, who is to say there will be more or less money spent in the upfront?” said Tom Decabia, executive vice president and director of national broadcast buying for Schulman/Advanswers New York.

“It could end up that next season’s scatter is going to be weaker, which would mean that CBS could end up holding the bag with lower unit rates than in the upfront. It could also leave the door open for NBC, Fox, The WB and ABC to grab larger shares of the upfront dollars.”

While the pre-upfronts are traditionally a time for buyers to screen clips of shows in development for fall, this year they spent just as much time listening to network executives talk about what will air in case of strikes.

Gail Berman, president of Fox Entertainment Group, said the network has a “strike-proof” schedule for at least the first three to four months of next season.

“Temptation Island II” is set to return next fall, as is “Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction,” “Love Cruise,” “In Search of …” and “Reno 911.”

Ms. Berman said scripted series orders and production have either commenced or been completed on new series “Greg the Bunny,” “Undeclared,” “When I Grow Up,” “The Tick” and “Love Cruise” as well as on backup series “Family Guy” and “Night Visions” and incumbents “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” “That ’70s Show,” “Grounded for Life,” “Futurama” and “King of the Hill.” Working in Fox’s favor as well are Major League Baseball playoffs airing through part of October.

Ms. Berman also placed a last-minute addition of “Endgame,” a hybrid reality/drama where 10 contestants must solve a murder mystery played out by a group of actors. The WB also appeared pretty far along in acquiring strike-proof reality programming. The network confirmed pickups of four reality series (totaling more than 50 episodes), including “No Boundaries,” “That’s Incredible,” “Lost in the USA” and “Elimidate Deluxe,” which is a spinoff of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution’s daytime version of the show to be syndicated in fall 2001.

UPN, too, is counting on reality series, including “Manhunt,” “Ambush TV,” “Road Rage” and the alternative sketch comedy “Off Limits.”

While NBC also has a heavy dose of alternative/reality series expected to be ready this summer and fall (including “Fear Factor,” “Spy-TV” and “Trial & Error”), NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker and West Coast President Scott Sassa are relying heavily on Dick Wolf to deliver scripted programming. Eight episodes of “Law & Order,” 13 episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” and 10 episodes of the new “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” will be ready for air next fall, regardless of strikes.

ABC, perhaps, is best positioned for possible strikes with an ample pipeline of nonscripted series such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Monday Night Football” and “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” already staples on its schedule.

Between those and the second incarnation of “The Mole” and the planned launch “The Runner,” ABC Television Entertainment Group Co-Chairmen Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun said they expect reality series to carry ABC through the first quarter of 2002.

Among other news from the pre-upfronts last week:

* Of the clips screened from the 15 comedies, eight dramas and five alternative series Fox has in development, ad buyers were particularly upbeat about several “edgy” comedies-the sock-puppet-led “Greg the Bunny,” Chuck Lorre’s interactive “Nathan’s Choice,” Judd Apatow’s college-bound “Undeclared” and Andy Richter’s fantasy-adventure “Anything Can Happen.”

“It seems Fox is one of the few networks that has continued to have success planting these edgy, younger-skewing comedies like `Malcolm’ and `Titus,’ and they just appear to be on the track in terms of developing this latest crop of Fox-branded comedies,” said John Rash, senior vice president and director of national broadcast buying for Campbell Mithun.

Ms. Berman also pledged to focus on solidifying Fox’s only weak links: Thursday and Friday nights.

“Fox really had the most to prove after last year’s presentations … to make a case early on this season that there is a more cohesive programming strategy, which Gail [Berman] has done extremely well in her first campaign,” said Andre Donchin, senior vice president of national broadcast for Carat USA. “Fox is working from a position of strength right now, and they appear to be only two nights away from fixing the whole apple cart.”

* The WB continued to focus on comedy development this year, unveiling 17 sitcom projects to mixed reviews.

Buyers were high on The WB’s prospects of finding suitable female teen companions for Friday’s run of “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” with spinoff “Witchright Hall,” “Maybe I’m Adopted” and “The Misadventures of Fiona Plum” all considered strong contenders.

However, some questioned whether The WB had enough of a solid comedy slate to fix some problems with its flat Sunday lineup of urban sitcoms. Generally, buyers were receptive to clips from Jamie Foxx’s planned variety show but wondered if it fit with the renewed “Nikki” and on-the-bubble “Gross Pointe.”

* NBC will revamp its Sunday lineup, possibly scheduling three dramas in place of the current movie showcase. Mr. Zucker also reiterated that NBC “can’t remain closed for business” on Sundays and Saturdays and said a revamping of NBC’s returning Saturday night movie franchise could be in order.

After screening clips of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” buyers felt it was a strong bet for the Sunday 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. (ET) time slot. Mr. Zucker also announced that a five-hour miniseries incorporating all three “Law & Order” series will air during May 2002 sweeps period. It will likely start on a Sunday evening and carry through on four successive nights, largely in time periods where the three franchises permanently air.

Buyers also got a kick out of a brief tape presentation of alternative series “The Weakest Link,” which debuts in the 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. Monday time slot on April 16 for a 13-episode run. One buyer described British-based host Anne Robinson as “Judge Judy meets Regis Philbin.”

* Not wanting to count as heavily on the eroding “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” ABC unveiled 34 pilots, including 10 dramas, 18 comedies and a half-dozen alternative series.

“Drew [Carey] is appearing in about 63 hours of programming this season and Regis [Philbin] does about 170 hours this season,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “So we thought we had to do something to get these guys some help [and] a little more rest.”

Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Braun said their two major objectives are re-establishing strong “point of view” comedies and dramas, and making “tonal adjustments” where series in both genres can be “more accessible and fun to watch.”

* UPN’s midseason moves indicate the male-dominated network is trying to embrace more female viewers. “Chains of Love” and the Aaron Spelling- produced “All Souls” sci-fi drama will be added to Tuesday nights starting April 17 as the network’s movie night switches to Fridays.

UPN Enterta
inment President Tom Nunan also said he’d like to broaden the appeal of UPN’s urban-skewing comedy lineup. “While we do appreciate our ethnic bases, we also have to reach out to the entire audience with broad-based, racially diverse comedies,” Mr. Nunan said. “I’m not saying we’re going to do anything major in changing Monday nights, but I really have to have comedies working on other nights as well.”