News Corp. mulls cable reality net

Aug 5, 2002  •  Post A Comment

News Corp. is discussing going forward with a new network devoted to the reality genre.
The so-called Fox Reality Channel, which would be cable- and satellite-delivered, would run reality programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Electronic Media has learned.
News Corp. has also been contemplating the idea for another channel that would be built around classic Fox TV programming and would be Fox’s answer to Viacom’s Nick at Nite and TV Land.
More reality programming is the last thing writers and actors want to hear about.
In one version of the Fox Reality Channel plan, according to insiders, a digital-tier cable channel would be up and running in the United States by 2005 at the latest and perhaps sooner in the United Kingdom and elsewhere internationally as a satellite-delivered service.
In the U.S. networks’ full-on freeway chase for higher ratings with lower production costs, News Corp.’s American broadcast network, Fox Broadcasting Co., has been the acknowledged reality-genre innovator.
“Fox pretty much wrote the book on reality,” said one grudgingly admiring competitor, pointing to Fox’s history of successes, ranging from “Cops,” “America’s Most Wanted” and innumerable car-crash clip shows to “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” “Temptation Island” and, most recently, this summer’s “American Idol.”
Planning for the tentatively named Fox Reality Channel as well as the classic Fox channel, began last year when News Corp. was bidding for DirectTV.
Economics of a new channel
The assumption at the time, insiders said, was that when News Corp. added the North American direct broadcast satellite service to its vast existing international satellite capacity, which includes British Sky Broadcasting in the United Kingdom and Star TV in Asia, channel capacity would become available and opportunities for launching new channels would naturally arise.
Satellite channels then could be leveraged onto cable systems with relative ease, the thinking went.
Though EchoStar initially beat out News Corp. for DirecTV, some insiders say that when all is said and down, Rupert Murdoch will end up with the satellite service. Furthermore, reality and nostalgia programming have become two of the hottest genres on television. That simple fact is still pushing the discussion ahead.
Mr. Murdoch, Peter Chernin and other senior News Corp. executives have yet to sign off on a budget and a specific launch strategy for the proposed reality network, but once that green light flashes the network’s development would move quickly to beat potential competitors for the all-reality franchise.
Insiders cautioned that there are serious issues of cost and carriage to resolve before a potential Fox Reality Channel becomes reality itself, and the current unsettled state of the economy in general and of the cable business in particular are perhaps the biggest ones.
What effect Wall Street’s lowered valuations of the cable sector will have on the rollout of new digital channels in the near and medium term is at best open to debate. On the one hand, a depressed marketplace could make News Corp. and other content providers more conservative in their programming and production planning overall; on the other, a channel with the heat all-reality is expected to have might prove to be an irresistible draw for multiple system operators who more than ever need to give their customers good reasons to go digital.
How MSOs in this unsettled marketplace might react to the prospect of the digital Fox Reality Channel can be inferred from the criteria one senior multiple system operator executive suggested for new-digital-channel carriage: the new channel has to be “narrow, but deep,” appeal to advertisers looking for targeted and desirable demo buys and lend itself to video-on-demand applications.
A sure thing
While there are many unknowns, there are two virtual sure bets in any reality channel’s future: One, any new digital cable entertainment channel launched by News Corp. in the United States will contractually come under the purview of Peter Ligouri, president and CEO of FX Networks. Two, the Fox alternate programming unit, headed by Mike Darnell, will be heavily involved in programming the channel.
A News Corp. corporate spokesman declined comment on the plans. Other senior executives involved in the talks either declined comment or were unavailable.