The WB’s Radical Genesis

Sep 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It seemed an impossible answer to an insoluble problem.

When The WB television network launched in January 1995, few in the entertainment industry were placing bets that the fledgling network would last.

The joint venture between Warner Bros., Tribune Broadcasting and Jamie Kellner-the man who helped build the Fox network back in the late 1980s-was faced with a lot of problems. Possibly the largest was its lack of distribution.

While it had pieced together a number of affiliates in the major markets, thanks in large part to Tribune Broadcasting, the fact was it could not achieve nationwide distribution, a fact that would sorely hamper ad sales. There just weren’t enough licenses available from the Federal Communications Commission in many of the country’s smaller markets to start up yet another network (Fox had already forged this trail a decade earlier, taking up the fourth and often final FCC license in these markets.).

Mr. Kellner devised a plan that, at its start, seemed unthinkable. Build a nationwide network that would unite cable operators and over-the-air TV affiliates in one common goal: providing a nationwide platform for The WB channel. Design the channel to look like a local station in each market-including local call letters, local advertising and on-air promotion of local events-and run the network out of Los Angeles.

Pie in the Sky

It was pie-in-the-sky meandering at first; the technology just wasn’t available to make it a reality. That began to change rapidly with the advent of digital video disc technology that Warner Bros. co-created, followed by MPEG II, a format by which film and video could be transmitted as data.

“At that point, Warner Bros. technology got together with IBM and created a wireless, satellite-fed cable box that could have 50, 100 or 150 different cable headends,” said Russell Myerson, executive VP and general manager of the WB 100+ Station Group.

In other words, the boxes-located in over-the-air TV stations and cable offices around the country-could not only receive the transmissions for the WB network but also disseminate which ads were to run in which markets, which call letters were to go with which city and so on.

“The technology was brilliant,” said Jed Petrick, president and chief operating officer for The WB. “From his days at Fox, Jamie Kellner knew he needed to have distribution in the country’s smaller cities. And he came up with a plan that brought together five disparate parts of the industry, and everyone won.”

Those five fingers included cable operators, who were being handed another channel that skewed toward a younger viewership; broadcast affiliates, who were looking for ways to access younger viewers; advertisers, who were champing at the bit to sell to younger viewers; syndicators, who now had another national venue for their product; and The WB, which would have a bona fide national platform.

Largest Launch

In September 1998 The WB’s 100+ Station Group launched with 80 new stations in TV markets ranked 100 to 210 by Nielsen, marking the largest simultaneous launch of a station group in television history. These were small and midsize markets ranging from Eugene, Ore., to Charleston, S.C., from Binghamton, N.Y., to Redding, Calif., representing about 2.8 million households. They all had one thing in common: No broadcast licenses were available in their markets, so cable was the only way they could be reached.

The launch was the culmination of an intricate dance, one in which WB executives were able to negotiate distribution agreements (Mr. Myerson likes to call it “bridge building”) with many of the nation’s cable operators and, simultaneously, bring in local broadcast partners who operated station affiliates around the country. Going into the negotiations, The WB was able to put something on the table that most affiliates up until then hadn’t been able to-a channel that had a strong 12 to 34 following.

“A lot of these towns are built around universities or military bases,” Mr. Myerson said. “So our demographics worked very well for them.”

The WB 100+ Plus Station Group also offered a tiered advertising sales plan allowing for local, regional and national ads on the channel for everything from the local tattoo parlor to McDonald’s and The Gap.

“For our local partners, I like to think that we’ve created a duopoly for them,” Mr. Myerson said. “They have a channel that reaches a prime viewer demo for free. They get a percentage of the ad revenue and we provide them with the kind of marketing support that they don’t often see from the traditional networks. It’s in everyone’s best interests to see it succeed.”

Since its launch five years ago, the 100+ Station Group’s viewership has steadily grown, from an initial 2.8 million households to more than 9 million today. A big part of that growth can be chalked up to the success of the WB’s programs, with such shows as “Everwood,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Smallville” finding a solid audience base. It also comes from a keen attention to detail in the company’s Burbank, Calif., headquarters. A staff of about 60 employees manages the 109 stations around the country.

Local Focus

One of The WB’s main goals is to make each channel not look like it’s coming from Burbank. That was, after all, part of the original plan-provide each station with its own call letters, its own unique brand.

“Whenever you look at viewership, you find that people tend to favor their local television stations because of that station’s connectivity with the community,” Mr. Myerson said.

In its efforts to make each channel look local, the WB 100+ Station Group does on-air promotions for community events, local public service announcements. It has even been known to promote events at local high schools.

“When tornadoes ripped through Jackson, Tenn. [in May], it devastated the Pringles [potato chip] factory, which is one of the town’s big employers,” Mr. Myerson said. “So we created a spot for that market to make donations to the Red Cross to help the victims of the tornadoes.

“A number of major plants closed in St. Joseph, Mo., so we ran a [public service announcement] on all 109 of our stations, saying what a great place St. Joseph was to live and work in. We try to be relevant and to give back to community. I like to think we’re doing things a bit differently. We just try to figure out ways to touch people that others haven’t thought of before.”