WB Sets Interim Afternoon Lineup

Jul 11, 2005  •  Post A Comment

As part of its transition from a weekday afternoon block of kids animation to adult-friendly off-network syndicated fare, The WB Network will begin airing the long-running Warner Bros. Television medical drama “ER” at 3 p.m. (ET) and a double run of Touchstone Television’s family comedy “8 Simple Rules” at 4 p.m. starting in January 2006.

“ER” and “Rules” are stopgap programming between the end of animation in December 2005 and the syndicated debut of 20th Century Fox’s “Reba,” which will premiere in a double run starting at 4 p.m. in September 2006. The network has not announced what will run with “Reba” at 3 p.m.

The WB debuts will mark “Rules'” first airing in syndication and “ER’s” first syndicated broadcast run as a strip.

The deal for “ER” and “Rules” is part of The WB’s overall strategy to make its afternoon programming more compatible with the network’s young adult audience. It is also designed to create an easier advertiser sell for local stations, which garnered strong ratings for the animated kids block but struggled to fill local ad time in programming that was kid-specific. The temporary block will run on about 200 stations.

The network declined to discuss specific terms of the deal for both shows, but Garth Ancier, chairman of The WB, said the distributors are “partners on a revenue split after costs.” The WB is expected to have eight minutes of advertising time for the two-hour block, with five minutes for local stations (TelevisionWeek, May 30). That breakdown gives local stations less time than they had with the WB Kids block, but the time is expected to be more valuable with young adult-friendly, off-network fare.

“ER’s” current success as a strip on TNT, where it dominates the 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. (ET/PT) time periods in basic cable among adults 18 to 49, bodes well for its success on broadcast in the afternoon, Mr. Ancier said.

“I’m feeling in a higher time period on a broadcast platform we should be able to outperform its ratings on TNT,” he said.

In its nine-month window on The WB, “ER” will have 185 exhibitions, well below the 250-plus episodes currently available. “ER” first went on the air on NBC in 1994 and will be back for the 2005-06 prime-time season.

The move for “ER” was something of a family affair for The WB. The series, the broadcast network, the distributor and TNT are all owned by parent company Time Warner. Still, no one got a bargain basement deal, said Eric Frankel, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution.

“We do our deals on an arm’s-length basis,” Mr. Frankel said. “This was a fair deal for a new window that hasn’t previously existed.”

TNT was part of the discussion, however. The cable network and The WB will work together to ensure the same episodes do not appear the same day on both networks.

“We needed their permission and they granted us their permission,” Mr. Frankel said of TNT. “They have all agreed to collaborate to ensure that both strips are programmed with the other outlet in mind. You wouldn’t want to see episode 42 on TNT in the morning and episode 42 in the afternoon.”

“Rules,” which ran for three years on ABC and was canceled by the network in May, has 78 available episodes.

“Rules” is a “perfect fit” with The WB stations’ traditional late afternoon run of off-network domestic comedies, said Janice Marinelli, president of Buena Vista Television, in a July 10 press release. “The series will be a perfect complement to the rich slate of family-friendly programming that the network has to offer.”

Key station groups with WB affiliates were supportive of the move.

“This is a major improvement,” said Bill Butler, VP of group programming and promotions for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 19 WB affiliates. “This is a major leap in the 3 p.m.-to-5 p.m. time period for young adult programs that we can sell to many, many more advertisers.”

From a sales perspective, the move to “ER” and “Rules” makes it easier for the network’s affiliates to sell local advertising for its entire January-to-September run, Mr. Butler said.

“Kids inventory has one-and-a-half quarters a year when it has value, and this programming has value four quarters of the year,” he said.

The WB’s decision to bring a high-profile one-hour series that still runs in prime time is a welcome move, said Garnet Losak, VP and director of programming at Petry TV.

“I really like that they are going in the drama strip business,” Ms. Losak said of The WB. “I have to kind of question whether ‘ER’ has been maxed out in who has and hasn’t seen it, but I’m really excited that they are trying a good drama strip in the afternoon.”

Mr. Frankel said with so many episodes available, “ER” is in no danger of wearing audiences thin.

“A, we have enough episodes,” he said, “and B, it’s different networks and diverse audiences. We see what happens with the ‘Law & Orders.’ If you split it between two [outlets] we don’t think there is an oversaturation issue.”

In terms of September 2006, a number of series have been suggested as “Reba” companions, including the 20th Century Fox comedies “Family Guy” and “Still Standing.” Mr. Ancier would give no indication what show or shows would air at 3 p.m. in fall 2006, but Mr. Frankel said he is open to having “ER” continue in the time slot.

“We’re all playing it by ear to see how successful ‘ER’ is,” he said. “We’re just optimistic it will have the same success the series has had for the last 11 years.”