Forced to Choose

May 1, 2006  •  Post A Comment

On opening day of the 2006 National Association of Television Program Executives convention in Las Vegas in January, Richard Doutre Jones, the VP and general manager of Bay City Television’s XUPN-TV in San Diego, sat among a half-dozen local station executives in a conference room at the Bellagio.

He was expecting the 8 a.m. meeting of the UPN board of governors to start with an address by UPN President Dawn Ostroff.

Instead, at the top of the hour Peter Schruth, the president of CBS affiliate relations, came into the room with a handful of press releases.

“He said, ‘[Dawn] won’t be coming, but right now, as we’re speaking, 11 a.m. New York time, they are announcing this.’ And he hands out [the release] to everyone there,” said Mr. Doutre Jones, who also runs XUPN’s sister station in San Diego, Fox affiliate XETV. “‘Why don’t you read this and I’ll come back, [Mr. Schruth said].’ And then he leaves.”

Mr. Schruth had distributed the release announcing the end of UPN and The WB and the formation of The CW.

Like hundreds of other top station executives that day, Mr. Doutre Jones quickly realized his world was about to change dramatically.

“It was instantaneous cellphones,” Mr. Doutre Jones said of the immediate reaction to the announcement, as everyone in the room began calling their stations to let their staffs know UPN would cease to exist come fall.

Mr. Doutre Jones learned by reading the press release that San Diego’s Tribune-owned station KSWB-TV would get The CW affiliation.

Bay City Television, the owner of XUPN and XETV, is a joint marketing partnership agreement between Mexican broadcaster Grupo Televisa and California-based Entravision Communications Corp. While XETV is the second-oldest station in the San Diego market (it began life 53 years ago as an ABC affiliate), XUPN entered the market as a UPN affiliate seven years ago. In 2004 XETV earned $39 million in revenues, while XUPN earned $57 million, according to media consultancy BIA Financial Network. The stations’ offices are in San Diego, but the towers broadcast across the U.S. border in Mexico, where stations’ call letters traditionally begin with the letter “X.”

Mr. Doutre Jones came to run the duopoly when it was formed 4%BD; years ago, as the result of a Televisa merger. A 30-year veteran of the business, Mr. Doutre Jones was the first employee hired by United Television of San Francisco in 1983 for KBHK-TV, an independent station that in the 1990s became San Francisco’s UPN affiliate.

Indie Experience

His experience is representative of many station executives who started their careers working at independent stations only to find the traditional indie business model they grew up with replaced by the creation of The WB and UPN.

On the day of the CW announcement, many station executives were left wondering if they would be competing against another station in their market for the new network’s affiliation. Mr. Doutre Jones’ first reaction was joy at realizing the old independent model he grew up on might once again become the way to do business.

“I got real excited about being an independent station again,” he said. Since he was in final negotiations with Twentieth Television for the syndicated telenovela strip “Desire,” which he thought would find a core audience with his market’s sizable English-speaking Hispanic audience, Mr. Doutre Jones figured he had his new 8 p.m. weekday lineup ready to go. He would put the strip on at 8.

And with his Fox affiliate’s local news team already doing a 10 p.m. show, a 9 p.m. edition of the news specifically for XUPN seemed like a good idea.

XUPN executives immediately saw the disappearance of UPN as an opportunity.

“[Prime time is] one of the lesser dayparts we sell on the station,” said Chuck Dunning, general sales manager for both Bay City stations.

Two nights per week UPN programming is dominated by shows targeting African American viewers with shows led by African American actors. While the San Diego designated market area is ranked No. 26 by Nielsen Media Research, it is ranked 58th in terms of black households.

Meanwhile, the San Diego DMA boasts 21 percent Hispanic households and ranks No. 13 among Hispanic markets. Of the Hispanic population, 58 percent are bilingual or English-language dominant, which made “Desire” a particularly attractive program for the station.

“They have been raised on telenovelas, but there’s never been anything like that in the English-language universe,” Mr. Doutre Jones said of the market’s Hispanic audience.

Mr. Doutre Jones’ promotions manager, Judy Albrecht, also saw the change as a potential problem solver.

“We were not disappointed to see UPN go away,” said Ms. Albrecht, who described the network’s prime-time schedule, which includes such divergent offerings as reality series “America’s Next Top Model” to pro wrestling, as “schizophrenic.”

From XUPN to TV13

By 8:30 a.m. Jan. 24, the morning The CW was announced, Mr. Doutre Jones had already spoken to Ms. Albrecht, who started removing the UPN logo from the station’s Web site and on-air promotions in a transition to the moniker “TV13.” She also canceled $40,000 worth of radio and print promotions for UPN prime-time series, shifting all of the station’s buys to non-network dayparts.

And in a move that uncannily forecast developments to come, she coincidentally registered the Web site domain name MYTV13.com. She was inspired to grab the domain by a Fox interactive Web demonstration that used the phrase “My” as a personalization tool after the network’s parent company bought the popular Web site MySpace.

“I said, ‘That’s cute,'” Ms. Albrecht remembered.

Despite his enthusiasm for independence, Mr. Doutre Jones immediately assumed that Fox would have some kind of response to the announcement of The CW. A former executive at the Chris-Craft stations, which were later bought by Fox and run as UPN affiliates, Mr. Doutre Jones knew Fox had the interest and resources to create original, distinctive programming for those stations.

He also has longtime relationships with many of the top Fox executives, including Twentieth Television President and Chief Operating Officer Bob Cook, Twentieth Executive VP and General Sales Manager of Broadcast Paul Franklin, President of Programming Paul Buccieri and Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy.

“I just had to believe they were going to do something,” Mr. Doutre Jones said, noting that Fox’s distribution arm, Twentieth Television, was producing “Desire.”

“Suddenly, they are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the situation,” he added.

Going independent had its own risks for Mr. Doutre Jones. San Diego already has an indie, KUSI-TV. In addition, any venture undertaken by Fox would be of interest to Bay City Television, Mr. Doutre Jones said. He already was in business with Fox, running the network affiliate in the market.

What’s more, Fox’s track record, his familiarity with the executives behind the venture and the man running the whole show made Mr. Doutre Jones think any Fox-driven venture was worth exploring.

“Who does it make sense to throw your money to?” Mr. Doutre Jones asked. “If I’m a betting man I’m going to bet on [News Corp. CEO] Rupert [Murdoch].”

Later in the day Jan. 24 at the NATPE convention, Mr. Doutre Jones sought out Mr. Cook and Mr. Franklin. The Fox executives told him that in light of the CW announcement they would be heading to New York the next week to discuss what steps Fox would be taking. They also told Mr. Doutre Jones they’d call him.

“I started pestering the crap out of them,” Mr. Doutre Jones said. “I was constantly on their butts.”

He didn’t have to wait long. Less than a month later, on Feb. 22, Fox’s parent company News Corp. announced it was launching My Network TV in the fall.

“They called us the same day,” said Mr. Doutre Jones, who by this time was less enamored of the idea of go
ing independent and was growing interested in Fox’s new platform. “We just knew because of the way things were going this was going to happen.”

One of the things that happened was that Fox announced it was taking back “Desire” from TV13 for syndication. A clause in the fine print of the contract allowed the syndicator to do this.

“We were freaked out,” Mr. Doutre Jones said, noting that there had been a bidding war between TV13, KUSI and KSWB over “Desire” in the first place.

Mr. Doutre Jones noted the irony of “Desire” as soon as the MyNetworkTV announcement was made-he would once again be in contention for the show-not for syndication this time but as an affiliate.

Pitching TV13

Mr. Doutre Jones did not assume that because Bay City owned the Fox-UPN duopoly in the market, his station would automatically land MyTV.

“I didn’t want to take anything for granted, even though we have an exceptionally strong relationship,” he said. “We really wanted to make sure Twentieth felt comfortable that we were going to be the best place for their network.”

Mr. Cook also kept his options open.

“There were more powerful television stations, and there were multiple bids,” he said of the San Diego market. “Richard came up here and gave us a full-blown presentation [on] why he thought they would be the best partner, and it was quite compelling.”

Indeed, just months after Mr. Cook and Mr. Franklin were selling “Desire” to Mr. Doutre Jones, Mr. Doutre Jones was selling Twentieth on My13 with an hour-long slide presentation about why his station was the best place for MyNetworkTV.

The presentation comprised arguments that TV13’s current first-run and off-network programming was compatible with an adults 18 to 49 audience and that for November 2005 almost half the station’s audience fit in the demo. It also highlighted Bay City’s ability to cross-promote between its two San Diego stations, the company’s promotional relationships with radio stations and TV13’s second-highest concentration of Hispanic viewers among the market’s English-language stations.

The presentation worked. In March MyNetworkTV announced it had selected TV13 to be its San Diego affiliate.

“It was a natural fit,” Mr. Cook said of Twentieth’s decision to go with TV13. “We’re big believers in cross-promotion of the duopoly. If anybody’s going to make it work, Richard is the kind of guy I want in my corner.”

For now, TV13, which will transition to the call letters XDTV in August, is waiting for the network to redesign the MyNetworkTV logo so it can prepare its new local look.

Mr. Cook said the designs are coming “sooner than later,” with a focus on having as much as possible ready for the May 16 MyTV upfront in New York.

TV13’s Ms. Albrecht is also waiting for network tease spots that are due in May.

Mr. Doutre Jones said he is less concerned about the outcome of the May Nielsen book because his entire prime-time schedule is about to change, with at least half of his schedule ending up with his competitor in September. He decided to scale back on station promotion for the upcoming May sweeps, opting instead to save his promotional resources for the crucial MyNetworkTV launch period of August through November.

“We said we’re going to make a decision based upon what is best for the long term, and in the long term for us, we didn’t want to do anything to promote the shows that went over to The CW,” he said.

Launching the new network has its risks. Doing so could prove especially treacherous, considering TV13’s cross-town competitor KSWB will be heavily promoting its new CW schedule and the fact that MyTV’s premiere will mark the debut of a format new to the English-language marketplace.

But Mr. Doutre Jones is confident his best bet is to expand his alliance with the Fox family.

“It’s a gamble no matter what you’re doing. We figured it this way-the Fox owned-and-operated [stations] are going to own this. Do we really think they are going to allow it to fail?”