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Questions abound for ABC Family

Jul 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A week after The Walt Disney Co. plunked down more than $5 billion for Fox Family Worldwide, there are still more questions-and speculation-than answers about just what will happen after the acquisition is finalized this fall.
A number of the questions are potential stumpers for the team that will rebrand the Fox Family Channel as ABC Family Channel-a team that insiders say is likely to be led by ABC Television President Steve Bornstein with involvement by cable chief Anne Sweeney-and remake it into an outlet for programming still hot off the ABC broadcast network.
Will affiliates regard instant repurposing of ABC’s entertainment, news and sports programming as cannibalization of their life’s blood or as an economic reality in which they can participate?
Will cable operators buy the second overhaul of the channel by its second new owner in four years? Or, as the cable industry watches venerable general-interest channels struggle to stop ratings erosion while niche channels blossom, might the rebranding of the channel jeopardize the very distribution-a near-universal 81 million U.S. subscribers-that has been the low-rated Fox Family Channel’s chief asset?
Will Disney-which couldn’t convince the Writers Guild that encores within two weeks of first broadcasts should be considered original airdate and thus not subject to additional residuals-be forced to pay significant incremental license fees in order to take repurposing to a new level that has potentially dramatic impact on how TV business is done?
ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau was unable to give anything but a sketchy overview of the strategy during a conference call with the ABC affiliate board two days after the Fox Family purchase was announced.
Over the next couple of weeks, the affiliate board will be taking the temperature of the broader affiliate body in order to prep the affiliates’ economics committee for the inevitable conversations in which the network will begin to flesh out its repurposing plans.
Disney had no comment about any of its plans other than to refer to what was discussed in its original announcement, which included the statements that it would “explore with its broadcast affiliates ways for them to participate in ABC Family” and “work with the channel’s cable affiliates … to ensure that family-friendly programming retains its role as a highly valued component of basic cable.”
An agreement that expires next year imposes a variety of restrictions on repurposing by ABC of its programming. Under a separate deal, Disney shares SoapNet revenues with affiliates based on market-by-market performance of the cable channel that mixes repurposed daytime dramas and compatible fare.
Fox Family has spent the last year renegotiating distribution contracts. Comcast Communications has signed a new deal. Some deals are understood to be on paper and lacking only signatures, some are at the agreement-in-principle stage and at least one more is up this year.
The change of Family Channel ownership and content will cause cable affiliates who haven’t yet re-signed to pause until they know more about Disney’s plans-the key question is the unknown, say observers. When the talks resume, what had been a Family Channel issue will inevitably become more a Disney issue.
Lehman Bros. says it is not concerned about the renewal question because the sub fees are at “the low end of the spectrum for fully distributed cable channels, and Disney will clearly improve on the content.”
Last year, after it acquired what was The Nashville Network in the merger with CBS, Viacom remade it as TNN: The National Network, with little apparent outcry from MSOs. Some say TNN benefited by having WWF shows-which many cable operators regard as must-carry programming-on its lineup.
Family Channel has a very different kind of must-carry programming, including “The 700 Club,” a holdover from the Christian Broadcasting Network, which sold the channel to Fox owner News Corp. in 1997 with the condition that the religious program continue.
In a statement, CBN President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Little has declared himself “optimistic” that ABC “will bring valuable program strength to the channel.”
ABC will, however, have to program around the 21/2 hours a day of “700 Club” (11/2 hours original on weekday mornings and a cut-down one-hour version at 11 p.m. weeknights) in perpetuity.
Less pesky are the short- and long-term questions related to the regular season and division baseball playoff games Fox had farmed out to FX and the Family Channel. ESPN will take over the production and perhaps absorb them into its lineup next year.
The most daunting challenge, observers say, is convincing the partners-whether studios, producers or actors-who have a stake in the front-end or back-end of network programming to let ABC rerun it at will.
NBC and Pax share a variety of programs, but many NBC affiliates have been able to benefit through joint sales agreements, which help keep both sides happy.
On the other hand, a combination of affiliate backlash and low ratings soon scuttled a same-day repeat of “Today” on MSNBC, a reminder that broadcast popularity does not necessarily transfer to cable.
Some expect producers Steven Bochco, who contributes veteran “NYPD Blue” and newcomer “Philly” to ABC’s prime-time lineup, and David E. Kelley, whose “The Practice” has given ABC a Sunday-night hit, to ultimately cast a long shadow over ABC’s repurposing schemes.