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Turner link may help WB slay `Buffy’ suitors

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In the ongoing bidding war for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” The WB network may now have the cross-media platform trump card to retain the hit series beyond this season.

Thanks to The WB’s new ties with the Turner cable networks, the AOL Time Warner properties may carry leverage to extract shared broadcast/cable exhibition windows for “Buffy” and possibly for the Thursday night hit “Charmed” as well when the latter comes up for renewal next season with Paramount Network Television.

The linkage of The WB and Turner Networks, which was officially cemented two weeks ago with WB CEO Jamie Kellner’s appointment as chairman of Turner Broadcasting, gives Mr. Kellner the power to offer a new economic model for staggered broadcast/cable windows on first-run prime-time series.

Sources on both sides privy to the ongoing, 4-month-old negotiations for “Buffy’s” broadcast rights next season confirmed that series producer 20th Century Fox Television has already received a cross-media platform pitch from Mr. Kellner.

“That is something Jamie has floated, but I am not saying he has come close to matching the price,” said a source with close contacts to 20th Century Fox.

Parties on both sides are short on specifics, but speculation has centered on The WB/Turner Networks offering either percentage of ad revenue from the cable plays, a simple barter advertising split or an increased combined license fee.

“I am sure a lot of things have been proposed, but we are not going to negotiate in the press,” said Brad Turrell, senior vice president of communications for The WB, speaking on behalf of Mr. Kellner, who was en route late last week to corporate meetings in Atlanta.

“Certainly, since the time the negotiations started and up to now, the world has changed for Jamie Kellner,” Mr. Turrell added.

On the programming side, Mr. Kellner is also getting an assist in the negotiations from former NBC Entertainment head Garth Ancier, whom he named last week to serve as executive vice president of Turner Broadcasting Systems.

“We’re now in an 80-channel universe for the average viewer,” Mr. Ancier said. “So it simply makes sense [to do the additional exposures] … just as people do with feature films where it plays in a theater, pay-per-view, DVD, on premium [cable], on a network or whatever. This is just a way of experimenting to get maximum performance out of that asset without doing less-expensive programs for sale to broadcast-only or cable-only outlets.”

In the most recent tug-of-war with 20th Century Fox, the News Corp.-owned studio is said to be seeking between $2 million and $2.6 million per episode for “Buffy’s” prime-time rights, with UPN being the latest network suitor widely said to have entered the “open” bidding process. The Fox network may still be in the running, but various sources say ABC has passed on bidding.

Mr. Kellner has repeatedly said The WB would not pay more than $1.6 million per episode-roughly a 60 percent increase over the $1 million or so The WB is currently paying.

Mr. Kellner has tried to cut a shared broadcast/cable deal for a WB series before. Before the start of this season, he sought a staggered broadcast/cable window for “Felicity” with Disney-owned studio Touchstone Television (EM, May 29, 2000). At one point, it was said by various industry sources that Mr. Kellner broached the idea of sublicensing a second run of “Felicity” to either Lifetime Television or one of the Turner Networks.

There could also be some potential roadblocks to Mr. Kellner’s latest proposal on “Buffy,” given that 20th Century Fox has already sold the back-end rights for “Buffy” to its sister FX cable network, which starts telecasting reruns next season.

With synergy in mind, the Fox network has also been seen as interested in acquiring “Buffy’s” broadcast rights. However, the studio is said to be proceeding cautiously on any deal involving a direct sale of “Buffy” to Fox, given that the studio is currently embroiled in a lawsuit brought by veteran producer Steven Bochco over the back-end sale of “NYPD Blue” to sister cable network FX.

“With the case coming to trial shortly [ April 9], Twentieth has been looking to avoid anything that looks like a sweetheart in-house sale of `Buffy’ to Fox,” said a leading Hollywood talent agent, who requested anonymity.

The veteran TV series packager also said UPN’s entry into the bidding process “may not appear as potential conflict of interest,” but “in an indirect way, Fox’s ownership of UPN stations and a potential equity stake would still bring money for the company if `Buffy’ went to UPN.” (News Corp. bought the Chris-Craft Industries/United Television stations, which include eight major market UPN affiliates, last December.)

Another participating network source said UPN’s interest in “Buffy” is “a way of returning a favor for their new friends at Fox.”

In the meantime, as 20th Century Fox jockeys for a potentially lucrative front-end broadcast network deal, Viacom-owned Paramount has been quietly studying the situation, since The WB’s 9 p.m. (ET) Thursday hit “Charmed” comes up for license renewal after the 2001-02 season.

If “Buffy” were to bolt The WB for another network, Paramount could see “Charmed’s” value rise as the Frog Network looks to fill an 8 p.m. Tuesday vacancy.

If “Charmed” moved to Tuesdays, it would also potentially enhance the license value of the show. Talent agency and syndication sources said it’s odd that “Charmed,” which is in its third season, has not yet been sold to a cable network or placed in broadcast syndication. One source close to Paramount suggested that the studio could be holding out for a contract extension of two years or more on “Charmed.”

Additionally, the talent agency source said Paramount parent Viacom offers little in the way of a viable in-house cable network sale, since The National Network skews more to male viewers.

“Paramount could also be waiting to see if Jamie [Kellner] offers an overall first-run and back-end cable deal with The WB and TBS or TNT,” added the agency packager.

Chris Pursell contributed to this report.