By Chris Pursell and James Hibberd
News Corp. President and CEO Peter Chernin drove the discussions in recent weeks that have resulted in an about-face in the programming strategy behind the company’s MyNetworkTV, multiple sources close to the situation said.
Faced with disappointing prime-time ratings that in some markets are lower than affiliated stations’ daytime performances, MyNetworkTV executives are plotting changes that could cut the network’s current all-telenovela programming from six nights a week down to as few as two, sources said.
Mr. Chernin was involved in the creation and launch of MyNetworkTV, but until about six weeks ago he was relatively hands-off.
Station executives who requested anonymity for this report said they welcome Mr. Chernin’s involvement in attempts to right the ship.
The most popular option to have emerged from recent brainstorming among executives of the network has the 4-month-old MyNetwork adding a variety of content on non-telenovela nights that could include movies, unscripted series and sports, sources indicated.
One series being considered for a prime-time slot is “My Games Fever,” a live game show formatted from a hit British series that was originally slated for daytime via syndication. The show’s appeal will be evaluated during a daytime test run on 10 Fox-owned stations that began earlier this month.
A scenario being considered comprises telenovelas on Tuesday and Thursday, a movie night on Wednesday, a sports event on Mondays or Saturdays and a talk show/variety hour paired with a game show on Fridays.
Any changes to the lineup are not likely to happen earlier than next summer, but the current planning marks a retreat from a format that News Corp.’s Fox fielded in September in response to the formation of The CW earlier in the year. Trying new programming signals that Fox isn’t ready to give up on the network, and it may tamp down speculation that the company might pull the plug on MyNetworkTV in the next year if its ratings don’t improve.
Executives of the network who have been involved in the recent rejiggering meetings include Mr. Chernin, Twentieth Television President and Chief Operating Officer Bob Cook, Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy and Fox Television Stations Chairman Roger Ailes. They have been discussing, both internally and with stations, “more than a few options” designed to kick-start the channel, several insiders said.
A Big Bet
Acquiring or producing alternative MyNetworkTV programming might cost more than telenovelas, which are produced on a shoestring budget. The bet would be that the new shows will draw a broader, bigger audience and generate higher advertising revenue, offsetting the programming investment.
Among the programming options MyNetwork is considering is an attempt to revisit a deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization, insiders said. The martial arts league currently televises fights on pay-per-view and Viacom’s Spike TV network and has a weekly syndicated series planned with Trifecta Entertainment for a fall 2007 rollout.
UFC was in discussions with MyNetwork executives before the network opted to go with prime-time soaps six nights a week, and Fox station executives have expressed interest in the league in light of its Trifecta deal, sources said.
Distributor Twentieth Television has sought talent for unscripted projects in recent months that include game show series, as well as a variety format, that could be contenders for MyNetwork rather than syndication.
The distributor is looking at potential game shows in “Catch Phrase” and “Connections” from Granada as well as “Temptations” from Fremantle for other dayparts, but could move the projects to prime time, sources said.
Any programming upheaval at MyNetwork is likely to start after cycle two of the network’s prime-time soaps. “Wicked Wicked Games” and “Watch Over Me” end their runs next spring. That’s when “Saints and Sinners,” part of the network’s planned third batch of telenovelas, has been scheduled to begin.
A decision to cut back on telenovela nights could have several ramifications for the TV industry. Until now, MyNetwork’s content has been distributed by fellow News Corp. property Twentieth Television. Mixing up MyNetwork’s programming could open time on the network’s schedule to other production companies and studios looking to sell prime-time content.
Scaling back on the format will also take a step toward returning prime time to a field similar to the days before The WB and UPN merged.
Currently, MyNetwork has set itself apart with its unique telenovela programming, which it adapted to English from wildly popular Spanish-language soap operas. Adding a variety of unscripted fare would put the fifth- and sixth-ranked networks into a more competitive relationship.
MyNetworkTV was launched in 180 days as a counterstrike to the creation of The CW, but has struggled to find audiences for its prime-time telenovela format.
Since its launch Sept. 5, the shows have averaged a 0.7 household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s less than a third of what stations pulled in the time periods last year with UPN and The WB.
“MyNet was born out of last-minute desperation, and it’s a miracle they got on the air as quickly as they did,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime’s executive VP of research. “MyNet is going to have to evolve to survive. The model of telenovelas has shown they’re not such an easy translation. It’s programming from the finance department rather than programming from creative vision.”
MyNetwork executives have urged stations and the media to be patient with the format, saying they were focus-group testing the content and promised the second cycle of telenovelas would show a marked improvement.
Two weeks ago, the second cycle debuted to ratings that didn’t improve markedly on the first go-around.
A spokeswoman for MyNetworkTV declined to comment for this report, noting only that “We have lots of meetings.”
Syndicators had been waiting for a decision on MyNetwork’s future. The mini-network currently holds valuable real estate around the country, including extremely rare prime-time slots in New York and Los Angeles that distributors were looking to target if MyNetwork went away. Executives have privately acknowledged that a number of series in development would move forward only if those time slots were made available.