Tribune Execs: All Eyes on Fox in Wake of UPN-WB Merger

Jan 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

How Fox handles the news that The WB and UPN are merging will in large part determine how significant the merger’s impact will be on the television business overall, according to Tribune Broadcasting’s top programming executive, Marc Schacher.

“The ripples will start with Fox,” Mr. Schacher, Tribune’s VP of programming and development, told TelevisionWeek on Tuesday during a conversation on the exhibition floor of the National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Las Vegas.

The Fox Television Stations face the task of programming several hours for at least eight stations that currently carry UPN affiliations and are expected to lose those affiliations this fall when UPN shuts down to make way for the launch of The CW. The new, merged network will air on Tribune- and CBS-owned stations in major markets.

Several top Fox executives at NATPE said late Tuesday they had not yet determined what would go into those time periods and declined to comment further.

Syndicators, producers and agents were already setting up meetings in the convention hall at Mandalay Bay to discuss new programming they hoped to sell to stations that will lose their UPN or WB programming.

One agent suggested a prime-time talk show could be turned around for fall to serve the stations losing their network affiliations. Other NATPE attendees suggested the weekly action hour genre, which had its heyday before the debut of UPN and The WB, could make a come back.

Mr. Schacher suggested that turning around a new strip at this point would be a stretch. “Knowing the production process, to pick a project, get it sold and get a viable production up and running would be a challenge,” he said. That said, shows already in development could have a chance, he said.

However, the moves announced Tuesday could feasibly “reinvigorate the weekly hour” business, which could include action shows, he said.

The weekly hour category likely will continue to be dominated by familiar, known commodities, be they off-network properties or originals with an otherwise recognizable brand, Mr. Schacher said, with a nod to his company’s recent “Idol” buy.

Though most of the Tribune stations will carry The CW, a handful will become indies come fall. Making programming decisions for Tribune stations in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Seattle is next on Mr. Schacher’s to-do list.

He said the company is in the process of evaluating what it has on hand before buying any additional programming. For the time being, Tribune has rights to double-run its upcoming collaboration with Sony Pictures Television, “The Greg Behrendt Show,” starring author and comedian Greg Behrendt. Mr. Schacher said he’s considering putting one of the runs in prime time on those stations.

With the news that The CW will air on Tribune stations, and already riding the high of the group’s recent acquisition of off-network weekly “American Idol Rewind,” Mr. Schacher and his colleague John Vitanovec, executive VP of Tribune Broadcasting, both appeared extremely upbeat on the exhibition floor as they waited to meet with NBC Universal executives on the opening day of NATPE 2006.

“It’s exciting that we’re here and instead of talking about VOD and other ancillary businesses, we’re all talking about what broadcasting does best,” Mr. Vitanovec said.

Both Tribune execs dismissed the emerging criticism Tuesday that The CW brand appeared weak and unclear.

“Who knew what UPN was when it started?” Mr. Vitanovec said.

“Programming is really the brand,” Mr. Schacher added. “Names don’t bring viewers, programs do.”

Chuck Ross contributed to this report.