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‘Desire’ Stumbles in Early Ratings

Sep 11, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The first few outings for MyNetworkTV’s inaugural broadcast schedule of English-language telenovelas failed to bring out the passion in viewers.

While national ratings will not be available until at least this Thursday, last week’s preliminary ratings in the metered markets showed the network’s two new Monday-through-Saturday one-hour limited romantic drama series, “Desire” and “Fashion House,” did not premiere in a big way.

The jury is still out on what the shows’ slow start means to MyNetworkTV, which is taking a big gamble with a prime-time programming service that brings an unproven format to general-market TV viewers.

For its debut last Tuesday, the new 8 p.m. (ET) drama “Desire” averaged a 1.1 household rating and 2 share in 52 markets metered by Nielsen Media Research. That was down 39 percent from its average quarter-hour lead-in of 1.8/3, and down 50 percent from the September 2005 time period average of 2.2/4, when most stations were either WB or UPN affiliates. In its second day on air, “Desire” scored a 1.0 rating, a 9 percent decline from its debut.

The second hour of MyNetworkTV’s new block, “Fashion House,” fared better with a 1.2 rating and 2 share. That was up 33 percent from its average lead-in of 0.9/2, but down 40 percent from its year-ago time period average of 2.0/3. “Fashion House” was down 33 percent in its second airing Wednesday to a 0.9.

“Desire” and “Fashion House” were first developed by Twentieth Television as syndicated programming, but with the surprise announcement in January that UPN and The WB were shutting down to form the new network The CW, Twentieth pulled back the programming and opted to form MyNetworkTV, making the shows the new network’s prime-time cornerstone. The end of UPN left Twentieth’s sister company Fox Television Stations in a programming lurch for its UPN affiliates. In a first for general-market broadcast, Twentieth TV took the formats of successful Spanish-language telenovelas and adapted them for an English-language audience in the U.S.

Despite the soft open and declines, Twentieth Television is optimistic about the serialized, all-original programming format, which will run closed-ended shows in high definition for 13 weeks with no interruptions before repeating the schedule with another original pair of 13-week series.

“We were coming from a standing start with no momentum from before,” said Bob Cook, Twentieth TV’s president and chief operating officer. He added that launching an unfamiliar genre of programming off mainly former UPN stations gives the new network a disadvantage that will take time to overcome.

“We were inheriting time periods that were deteriorating,” he said, noting he was heartened by his shows’ quarter-hour ratings gains despite the built-in disadvantages. “There were viewer defections.”

Any talk of an early demise of the new programming format based on the first week of ratings is premature, he said.

“We’ve said from day one this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Mr. Cook said. “There is going to be little benefit but constant angst from taking the temperature on a daily basis.”

Asked whether, like other networks, MyNetworkTV will pull “Desire” or “Fashion House” if they fail to generate ratings and replace them with its almost-completed next set of limited dramas, Mr. Cook responded with a flat “no.”

“Our plan right now is if these novelas don’t perform up to expectations we will figure out how to make them better.”

Meanwhile, it will be up to stations to abide by any choices the network makes.

Considering the initial numbers coming out of the handful of markets with Nielsen’s Local People Meters, which allow stations to look at overnight numbers and specific viewer demographics, Mr. Cook may be hearing from stations about improving the programming very soon. In New York on WWOR-TV last Tuesday, MyNetworkTV’s two-hour block premiered with an average 1.4 rating in adults 18 to 49. A day later the adults 18 to 49 average dropped to 0.5. In Los Angeles on KCOP-TV, the adults 18 to 49 number was a 0.4 on Tuesday and a 0.2 on Wednesday. In Chicago on WPWR-TV, adults 18 to 49 remained even with a 0.5.

Local stations running MyNetworkTV’s programming are satisfied with the creative for “Desire” and “Fashion House,” said Jack Abernethy, CEO of Fox Television Stations. “The initial reaction has been very positive,” he said. “More importantly, they love the look of the shows.”

The initial ratings do not concern Mr. Abernethy. “I’ve really had no expectations,” he said. “We didn’t spend a lot of time worried about ratings in the beginning.”

The unique composition of the U.S. TV market may create a structural challenge for MyNetworkTV’s telenovela format, said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for ad agency Campbell Mithun and author of the online newsletter the Rash Report.

“America’s media menu is significantly more developed and most households are multiset, as opposed to much of the world being single-set,” Mr. Rash said. “That alters the complex dynamic that has given these stories so much resonance worldwide.”

In terms of the telenovela story lines, some of the plot points that resonated in much of Latin America don’t play the same way in the U.S., Mr. Rash added.

“Many of the stories depend on class conflict, which is much more subtle and behavioral than economic in today’s America,” he said.

Building an entire broadcast network around one specific genre of programming could be another challenge, said Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media.

“It’s like a niche cable network,” Mr. Adgate said. “It’s kind of a narrow program type.”

The early ratings are not stopping Mr. Cook, who is overseeing a marketing push, a promotional campaign that includes a competition for musical acts on sister company MySpace.com (similar to a promotion rival The CW is doing with the Web site), and continued pitches to advertisers on the new service.

MyNetworkTV has not reached its goal of selling $50 million in ad time “but we’re getting awfully close,” Mr. Cook said.

“Desire” and “Fashion House’s” performance came on nights when much of the network competition consisted of repeats, which begs the question of what will happen when powerful rivals such as “CSI” and “Dancing With the Stars” return with original episodes.

“Clearly those will be body blows,” Mr. Cook said of his returning competition. “We got our first body blow from our own sister network [Fox] with `House’ and `Standoff.’ They were arguably the best premieres of a drama in recent times, yet we still did a decent number.”

With no backup plan besides more telenovelas, MyNetworkTV is for now slated to stick with its programming strategy for the rest of the season. No matter what format the network goes with, MyNetworkTV’s parent company News Corp. will make every effort to see the service succeed, Mr. Rash said.