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Tribune Plans Safety Net for Stations (Correction)

Jun 15, 2008  •  Post A Comment

(Corrects story in second paragraph to note that CW affiliates have long-term contracts and do NOT have the right to terminate affiliation agreements. Eliminates ninth paragraph about timeline for affiliate decisions.)
The Tribune Co., which owns 23 television stations, is beefing up its library of programming, providing the company flexibility either to launch a new national broadcast network or invigorate the slate of its rebranded WGN America channel.
The contingency plans are being spurred in part by concern about the future of the company’s 15 CW affiliates, multiple people at Tribune said. The CW, which went live in 2006, has stumbled in the ratings. It has long-term contracts with its affiliates that give the network the prerogative as to the future of the relationships.
Tribune executives said they hope The CW will return for another season and they are optimistic about the network’s upcoming schedule. Still, one executive said, they don’t “want to be caught with their pants down,” recalling the difficulty Fox initially had pulling together viable programming for MyNetworkTV after its stations lost their UPN programming.
The plans for a new network are being developed to prepare for a “worst-case scenario,” said a Tribune executive who asked not to be named.
The CW, formed from the combination of Warner Bros.’ The WB and CBS’ UPN networks, voiced confidence about its future.
“We have a long-term strategy to build The CW with quality programming, strong stations and great advertisers,” The CW said in a statement. “The CW will be in business well beyond 2009.”
Tribune Broadcasting President Ed Wilson declined to comment on his company’s plans.
Tribune in recent months has been bidding for off-network, off-cable and first-run shows that could fill any gap, create a new network or reinvigorate WGN America, company sources said. WGN America currently broadcasts over satellite services.
“I think Tribune is smart about looking at this and saying what do we do if [The CW] goes out of business,” said Garth Ancier, who was president of entertainment when The WB was launched and was serving as network chairman when it was shut down.
The key for Tribune is to retain the value of its CW stations by providing original programming that creates a marketplace identity, said Mr. Ancier, now president of BBC America. It’s going to be particularly important to differentiate station brands next year, when analog channels will lose their channel positions, he said.
Tribune Broadcasting has undergone an executive makeover this year in the wake of Sam Zell taking control of the company. Mr. Wilson in February was put in charge of the stations, WGN America, Tribune Entertainment and WGN Radio. Tribune has TV stations in the country’s top five markets and a presence in 16 of the top 30 markets.
One of the challenges of contemplating the launch of a new TV network is the massive cost it would entail, at a time Tribune is slashing spending to help service the debt taken on in the Zell purchase.
Another big challenge is coming up with cost-effective programming people want to watch.
“That’s easy to say and hard to do, as you can see from MyNetworkTV,” Mr. Ancier said. “To the degree you are making original scripted programming or original reality programming that really moves the dial and is attractive to advertisers, that is a difficult and expensive process.”
But it could be a smart investment, he added.
“If you own TV stations of the importance and value of what Tribune has, I think that’s worth contributing $50 million in losses to maintain the value of the TV stations,” he said. “Virtually every network in the U.S. on the broadcast side operates at a pretty substantial deficit, but they do it to support their owned-and-operated stations.”
Adam Ware, who was chief operating officer of UPN before CBS took charge of it and now is president of IA Media, said he thinks Tribune can succeed where The CW has not if it maintains an independent local station mindset and keeps costs under control.
“You have to operate this thing differently,” he said. A network can succeed if it concentrates its programming and promotion on a single night of premium programming while running lower-cost programming, movies and off-net shows the rest of the week, Mr. Ware said.
He added that Greg Meidel, the former syndication executive who now runs MyNetworkTV, gets it, and Mr. Wilson gets it, too.
Having very strong stations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles is a good start for Tribune, Mr. Ware said.
“The biggest issue is that they aren’t perceived as syndication by the advertisers,” because broadcast networks get much higher advertising rates, Mr. Ware said. While startup networks have mostly failed in the past, “Viewers and advertisers will rally around a hit show that is an alternative to what they can currently buy.”
Developing and airing premier programs every night of the week is where new networks “start burning a tremendous amount of cash.”
Staffing can be kept to a minimum, Mr. Ware said. MyNetwork TV has about 10 to 15 dedicated staffers, with support coming from other divisions of News Corp.
“That’s the model, so that even if you fail the first time out you haven’t burnt through so much cash and you don’t have so much overhead that you can’t afford a second or third or even fourth try,” Mr. Ware said.
Ad buyers said the market may support new entrants.
Opportunity Is There
“There is definitely an opportunity for a fifth broadcast network,” said John Swift, managing director at media buyer PHD. “Just look at this upfront. People want to spend money nationally. People like networks.”
But the devil is in the details.
“I’d make sure I had a real brand and a real branding strategy for what I was trying to create,” Mr. Swift said. “Who’s going to program it? What is going to be the strategy? What’s going to be the vision? Who’s going to be the target audience? Are they going to go niche? Are they going to go young? Are they going to try to go broad like everybody? That’s what you’re going to have to know.”
Others remained skeptical of the model.
“Buying programming obviously makes sense. Developing it would be more of a concern for us,” said Mike Simonton, senior director at Fitch Ratings, which rates Tribune’s debt. “If CBS and Time Warner can’t develop and sell product for a fifth network profitably, there’s no reason to believe that Tribune can do it.”
Tribune is furthering its transition by completely remaking Superstation WGN into WGN America, with an eye toward becoming a broader entertainment cable channel. The first major shift on the channel debuted June 8, when WGN America introduced “Out of Sight Retro Night,” a weekly night of television classics such as “Newhart” and “The Honeymooners” hosted by Casey Kasem.
The channel also is expanding its roster of first-run development with an eye toward launching new series this fall. However, those programs also are being considered for the new net.
One of those names could already be on the air. Tribune has expressed interest in top-rated late-night comedian Jay Leno, who’s a free agent in 2009 after NBC replaces him next year as host of “The Tonight Show.”
Tribune, which owns the largest stations affiliated with The CW, including WPIX in New York and KTLA in Los Angeles, has a close, complicated relationship with the network. People familiar with the matter said Tribune was instrumental in the network’s deal for a new, outsourced Sunday lineup to be programmed and financed by Media Rights Capital.
Tribune’s ties to The CW got even deeper last month when the company inked a deal with Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution to create a daily two-hour afternoon programming block this fall in tandem with The CW.
The block will create an outlet for upcoming court show “Judge Jeanine Pirro” as well as two off-net comedies on CW affiliates from 3-5 p.m. each weekday. Joining “Pirro” will be “The Wayans Bros.” at 4 p.m. and “The Jamie Foxx Show” at 4:30 p.m. both of which return to the syndicated marketplace with the move. The new programming schedule will debut Sept. 22.
(Editor: Baumann. Corrected 4:10 p.m. West Coast)

116 Comments

  1. Can Tribune really succeed with a new network? I remember how their old first run syndie sci-fi shows Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda were both wrecked
    when Tribune, thinking EFC in particular required too much thought, had the show dumbed down.
    Then there’s the matter of Tribune selling Boston’s WLVI-TV 56, and taking from us one of the best 10PM newscasts in the area. Now Sunbeam owns WLVI and made the 10PM news another edition of 7News 🙁
    And let’s not forget how Tribune long ago abandoned their New York Daily News, which should have never been sold. Tribune makes enough mistakes that I think they’d fare worse than the CW has.
    *reminds himself to buy the Sun-Times and watch WFLD 32’s 9PM news when he someday visits Chicago*

  2. Tribune’s preparing for the end of The CW? That’s surprising, and it’s actually refreshing. Unlike the Fox-owned UPN affiliates, Tribune, once a partner in The WB, is ready to reenergize the independent network movement, or at least create a station model other affiliates could use.
    Meanwhile, The CW is still in a state of denial. They outsourced their highly-rated Saturday morning lineup and their Sunday night lineup to third-party programmers. Ratings have dipped during the two seasons the network has been in place. The urban audiences that helped made UPN thrive, is disappearing. They got rid of their highest-rated series, Smackdown.
    Tribune’s just one of MANY network groups unimpressed with The CW as well as worrying about the future of the network. Even Time Warner has been hinting they’re leaving the partnership if ratings and fortunes don’t pick up after the 2008-09 season, technically dissolving the network.
    The CW is in denial about the network’s future. The rest of us know the end is near.

  3. Thurston, you’re a genius. I have a feeling we might work for the same employer…your knowledge is that of an insider. Either that, or you have an uncanny knack of reading the writing on the wall. The CW has had it; even if they come back for another season, who’s watching? Tribune calls it worst-case scenario planning; I think it’s more like most-likely scenario.

  4. If Tribune is looking for syndicated segments for the news perhaps they should consider Interactive Dad TV, the first syndicated news segment that targets men 25-54. It’s a demo that news traditionally ignores. There’s a lot of buzz about it.
    It’s available for cash and barter.
    http://www.idadtv.com

  5. Great idea, Glenn!
    And if that fails, they can dust off the WPIX Yule Log and broadcast it 24/365, which sounds just as exciting.
    “There’s a lot of buzz about it.”
    Not.

  6. Aw, I love the Yule Log.
    My question is this: Was any of this in the works before the Sam Zell deal, or is this all him and his people?

  7. I have a great idea. Let’s take 2 failing networks, both of which go after the same unreachable demo and combine them into one. Then, we’ll take the very recognizable brand and famous logo which is taken from one of the partners and has been in Hollywood for nearly a century, and we’ll kill this brand. Then for our new brand we’ll take the intials (sort of) of the 2 failed nets and combine it into a new 2-letter brand which sounds either like a type of music which is anathema to its urban audience, or somebody’s CEO. And then we’ll brand it in a really ugly shade of green. Yeah. That’s good. And then we’ll strip it of most of the good shows that people actually liked from the 2 failing nets. Yeah—that’s how to do it.
    So for my next act……

  8. Absolutely, Jon! They should have kept The WB brand. That brand had equity. Apparently Time Warner thinks it still does, as it’s re-launching TheWB.com as a web channel in a couple of months. CBS should just turn operation of The CW over to Time Warner and re-re-brand the network as The WB.

  9. I can see the commercials now “The Frog is BACK!”
    Please let it happen.

  10. To be fair, UPN actually attracted urban audiences more than The WB did, and was very popular in that demographic, more so than any of the other networks on the air. UPN’s Monday and Tuesday night lineups generated high ratings in those households in comparison to what The WB garnered. UPN’s Friday night lineup of Smackdown drew in more male audiences than The WB on the six nights it was on the air.
    The thing that gets me is that The CW took on the persona of The WB while the UPN elements disappeared. They took on The WB’s scheduling. A bulk of the returning shows on launch were from The WB. They kept the Kids’ WB! name for their Saturday morning lineup. They even kept the “The” and the “W” from The WB. There’s no U, P, or N in their name at all.
    The CW is ran just like The WB, and yet, people feel The WB was a better, superior brand. UPN wasn’t aiming heavily towards the young female demographic The CW is dedicated to, The WB did.
    The reason Time Warner is revitalizing the WB brand is because they want out of the merger and they want total control of their properties. They recreated The WB and Kids’ WB as broadband-only networks so they could air more of the same products The CW airs online-only and some of the repeats of the type of shows that particular demographic craves, like Friends and The OC.
    The WB culture and mentality are the most prominent in the formation of The CW, but people still see UPN as the worst thing humanity has ever created. The WB side of The CW is the reason the network is failing and will likely fall within a year.

  11. “Dad TV” thinks that M 25-54 is a demo that news traditionally ignores.
    On exactly what planet would that be?

  12. I still say that we do not need another choice to fill the void. There are way too many program choices, various programming genre’s, that numbers are too low.

  13. Its nice that this comment forum doesn’t take out spammers. I guess that’s just the “NEW” way of advertising. SHame on you TV week for letting spammers stay on here!

  14. UPN did appeal to blacks but unfortunately the audiences were not buying. It’s a hard sell to say the audience you are getting is urban poor who don’t buy things. This is a fact, but always sounds racist when you say it.
    We have lots of channels but too few choices. Having six channels all running Roseanne repeats isn’t a choice really. We just have more of the same.
    Writers and actors have outpriced themselves so we are stuck with reality TV, which is cheap and pulls in similar ratigs. So it’s more profitable overall.
    The WB was hurt enourmously by the AOL take over, this changed the whole climate. UPN failed because it never found a niche audience. Smackdown was the highest rated show but it wasn’t a UPN show, it wasn’t a CW show and it isn’t a MyNetworkTV show. Smackdown is simply a popular show that purchased time on the CW (soon MyNetworkTV) the same way an infomercial would purchase time.

  15. There is an abundance of fantastic television that Tribune can buy, and if they are smart they will stick to buying shows and movies for their network, then develop one or two original programs. AMC and TBS are doing well with creating a few quality shows that run for 13 episodes. These shows sell well on DVD, VOD and to foreign markets, creating profit in perpetuity for the networks that own them.
    If Tribune stoops to CW’s level and fills their slate with homemade reality sludge and low rated teen soaps then they can expect to have cheap disposable content with a short shelf life. Cheap reality TV does not travel well to other countries and it gets terrible ratings in syndication.
    Tribune would do well to buy new syndicated genre shows in the vein of Xena, Andromeda, Beastmaster, Stargate and Star Trek for their afternoons, and to air quality Canadian and UK fare like ReGenesis, Prime Suspect and Flashpoint for nighttime. Then they can develop a few genre shows in the vein of Buffy, Angel and Torchwood.
    With 13 episodes of a few genre/niche shows Tribune could afford to work with showrunners like Joss Whedon, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Tim Minnear to create new shows to air in short runs over the course of the year.
    Tribune can start the game plan by buying great shows that failed to find their footing like Journeyman, Wonderfalls, Men in Trees, Drive and Jericho. These shows all had rabid fanbases and would flourish in syndication.
    I’ll be following these developments closely; the CW has squandered its potential and it’s demise is inevitable. I have long enjoyed my local WGN’s offering going back to the Xena/Hercules days and I think the Trib stations will flourish if they can avoid the low rated vanity projects CW keeps trotting out.

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