Forging an Identity

Sep 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Five years ago, a group of executives at Warner Bros. made television history.

With fledgling network The WB in hand and a lack of Federal Communications Commission licenses to take it nationwide, they chose to do the near impossible: create a new television station group via a complex and nearly unheard-of arrangement between cable operators and over-the-air station affiliates. The result was The WB 100+ Station Group, which launched in September 1998 with 80 stations and 2.8 million households-all in small and midsize TV markets-marking the largest station launch ever.

The challenges the WB 100+ Station Group now faces, such as competition from satellite and finding ways to customize local lineups, pale in comparison with the hurdles it already has cleared. The group hasn’t had time to look back on its first five years, when it grew to 109 stations reaching more than 9 million households. It has taken off in large part due to a successful lineup of programming that includes The WB’s “Angel,” “Charmed,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Everwood” in prime time and syndicated fare such as “Friends,” “Will & Grace” and lately “The King of Queens.” The station group also carries Kids’ WB, which boasts such hot tot cartoons as “Yu-Gi-Oh!” “Jackie Chan Adventures” and “What’s New Scooby-Doo?”

“I think there were a lot of skeptics when The WB was introduced,” said Peter Kreisky, president of New York-based Kreisky Media Consultancy. “But those skeptics are now eating their words. The WB has really managed to do what networks need to do-have a clear idea of who their audience is, then come up with a lot of high-quality shows aimed at that audience, in this case the audience being Generation X.”

The WB 100+ Station Group made it possible for The WB to have a national identity, which is crucial to an advertiser-supported network. With some 60 employees and a host of hard-won agreements with cable operators and broadcast affiliates to partner in the endeavor, the group has been nothing short of a surprising upstart.

The group in effect convinced archrivals-the broadcasters and cable companies who to this day remain at odds in a battle for viewers’ attention-to become partners.

“Technology was our first obstacle: How do we get this from point A to point B?” said Russell Myerson, executive VP and general manager, WB 100+ Station Group. “Once we had that figured out, we had to convince the television stations to think of this as a duopoly. We had to convince them and the cable companies that it could work as a three-way partnership. It had to be a financial package that made it worthwhile for both of them while it helped us achieve our distribution goal.”

The WB 100+ Station Group has been enough of a success that when syndicators are looking to put their shows out there, they aren’t hesitant to consider being on the group, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at the Katz Television Group, a media representative that sells spot advertising on radio and television stations across the United States. “The people who run it and put together the schedule have been aggressive in putting together a product that enhances its niche audience [12 to 34],” Mr. Carroll said.

As the station group continues to flesh out its programming choices-this fall The WB is introducing several new shows in prime time, including “Tarzan,” “All About the Andersons” and “Steve Harvey’s Big Time”-100+ executives are most enthused about the new daytime lineup. Such shows as “Ricki Lake,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Sharon Osbourne Show” may finally help them break a hit in the elusive afternoon daypart.

“Most of the daytime franchises either don’t hit our demos or are already taken up,” said Russell Myerson, executive VP and general manager of the 100+ Station Group. “Daytime is a tough market, but we think we’ve got a great lineup.”

Flexible Future

The company is looking down the road toward the advent of new technology that will further enhance its business.

“We expect three years from now that the next generation of technology will be high-definition,” Mr. Myerson said. “That and the advent of other technological advances will allow us to further customize programming schedules in each of our markets.”

The WB, unlike its competitors in the syndication market, has one time schedule for all of its shows. In the future, executives are looking toward new technology that will allow them to tweak the schedule in any given region.

Take “The Bernie Mac Show” as an example. The station group has picked up the show’s off-network syndication rights and will start airing the comedy series in fall 2005. Executives at the 100+ Station Group said they would choose to schedule the show in different time slots, depending on the market, if they had the technology to do so.

“In the more ethnically diverse markets, we might put that show in a higher prime-time slot,” Mr. Myerson said.

As things now stand, the network’s schedule has to remain the same throughout the country. Only the advertising, station identifications and local promotions differ from one city to the next.

And as 100+ executives look toward strengthening their position as a national network, they can’t help but admit to a growing concern-the ongoing war between cable and satellite TV operators. As satellite television continues to make inroads into the cable domain, it remains a question which medium will be dominant.

At this point, generally 30 percent of the population in any 100+ market does not see The WB because those households don’t subscribe to cable.

“It’s absolutely a worry, but the cable industry has been terrific,” Mr. Myerson said. “Part of the way we sold this venture was to give cable exclusivity.”

Mr. Myerson said that one day the company may have to rethink whether to include satellite if the balance between cable and satellite dramatically alters.

However, Jed Petrick, president and chief operating officer of The WB, said he’s confident cable will remain dominant.

“We made a deal with cable operators that enabled us to get where we are today. We wouldn’t be here without that,” he said.” As we move toward high-definition, I just think that cable is going to be the one that will be able to take down that digital feed. Satellite just doesn’t have the bandwidth. They need to figure out how to squeeze more out of the lemon.”