TELEVISION : There's Action Off the Beaten Path : The ground is shifting in TV's prime time as a slew of new shows arrive--but don't go looking for them in the usual places

On Wednesday night, the first of William Shatner's science-fiction "TekWar" novels comes to life in a two-hour TV movie. Shatner directed, executive-produced and guest-stars in the $4.3-million production, which follows the quest of a former cop who escapes from a cryogenic prison in the year 2044 to prove his innocence.

"TekWar" is part of a $100-million investment by Universal Television in a weekly series of 24 TV movies, rotating among six franchises that include adaptations of the theatrical films "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Midnight Run." They are being marketed under the umbrella title of "Action Pack" and are promoted as loaded (at least by TV standards) with action and adventure.

The following Wednesday, on another channel, brings the debut of the sci-fi series "Babylon 5," set on an outpost in space. And in the works for the next year are two romantic series from producer Aaron Spelling; "Lonesome Dove: The Series," inspired by Larry McMurtry's novels; "Robo-Cop: The Series," based on the feature films, Hulk Hogan in "Thunder in Paradise" and yet a third spinoff of "Star Trek."

But if you want to watch any of these new programs, don't go looking for them on the traditional networks--CBS, ABC or NBC--or even the less traditional one, Fox. You will find them airing on a patchwork of TV stations across the country. Their emergence is not simply a boom in the first-run syndication market that earlier produced "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues," but part of a seismic shift in the television landscape.

Managers of TV stations and producers of TV shows are forging new alliances and partnerships--including a torrid race to establish a fifth commercial broadcast network--to stay one step ahead of the avalanche of changes rumbling through the industry.

The proliferation of network newsmagazines ("60 Minutes," "Dateline NBC," "PrimeTime Live") and so-called reality shows ("Rescue 911," "Unsolved Mysteries") has significantly reduced the number of time periods available to drama producers, such as Hollywood's major studios. That figure may shrink even further under a recent court ruling that allows the networks to produce and own more of their own programming, rather than depend almost exclusively on outside suppliers for it.

So for the studios, syndication--selling programs directly to individual stations rather than to the networks--has grown from being a lucrative sideline endeavor to being crucial for survival. "Looking at the way the networks have the ability to produce their own products now, and the network schedules tightening because of newsmagazines, you don't really have to be pessimistic to project a time when it will become difficult to sell to the networks," said a senior executive at one of the major TV studios. "If you don't have a means to distribute your product, pretty soon you're not producing product."

TV stations, meanwhile, are welcoming their Hollywood suitors with open arms. With 500 cable channels and an information superhighway projected to be heading into America's living rooms in the next several years, local broadcast stations stand to become one small stop on a very large dial. They need an identity to stand out from the clutter--the kind of identity provided by distinctive, original programming.

That non-network entertainment programming with network-sized budgets can succeed has been demonstrated most clearly by "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which Paramount launched in 1987. The studio followed up early last year with "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and a revival of "The Untouchables." At the same time, Warner Bros. created the Prime Time Entertainment Network to syndicate "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" and "Time Trax," and this month is adding "Babylon 5." A host of independent producers struck gold in syndication with such series as "Baywatch," "Highlander" and "Renegade."

But there's a dramatic new twist this time around. Independent stations are no longer just picking and choosing individual first-run programs to create their own prime-time lineup; they are increasingly willing to clear out entire evenings--usually two-hour blocks in prime time--for shows packaged and promoted together under a theme or a recognizable name, with national support from a major program supplier.

Warner Bros.' Prime Time Entertainment Network, for example, will spend $20 million marketing this season's schedule, which in addition to three series a week includes two two-hour TV movies and a miniseries. The marketing plan involves $1 million in advertisements on the cable channels USA, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel.

Prime Time Entertainment Network, the Disney Afternoon, Spelling Premiere Network and Family Network are all programming blocks being offered for sale to TV stations later this month in Florida at an annual convention of television programming executives. Spelling's attempt to target women with two hourlong romantic comedies in prime time next fall has received solid early support, with stations covering 63% of the country having already agreed to air it.

But the most massive launch in the history of syndication may belong to Universal's "Action Pack" series. Six feature-film producers are creating two-dozen TV movies for a group of 137 stations that collectively reach 90% of the country. Every Wednesday night on KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles, viewers can catch these revolving TV movie franchises, which are being supported nationally with a $15-million promotional bang.

Two of them are spun off from Universal feature films, produced by the original directors of those films: George Gallo's bounty-hunting "Midnight Run" and Hal Needham's car-chase bonanza "Smokey and the Bandit." There's also a sword-and-sandal "Hercules" epic from "Darkman" director Sam Raimi; a martial-arts saga from Rob Cohen, who wrote and directed "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," and a science-fiction yarn from "Animal House" director John Landis about two friends who discover a spaceship.

Universal went with popular titles and genres to help reduce the financial risk inherent in producing for syndication. Without a network license fee, which usually covers 80% to 85% of a program's production budget, the syndicators are essentially handing the shows over to stations for free and recouping their costs by hawking advertising time--a revenue source they give up when they license to the networks--and selling the movies later in reruns and overseas. "In the two-hour form, we feel these adventures will have an aftermarket life even longer than one-hours, because they can live on for years in movie packages and videocassettes," said Universal Television senior vice president Dan Filie. He also expects to spin off the highest-rated movies into hourlong series.

There are advantages in syndication for the creative personnel, too. "Since this is done for syndication," said Needham, who shot his four "Bandit" movies over 72 days in North Carolina on a budget of $2.5 million each, "I didn't have to put up with the network sending me pink pages and orange pages and yellow pages of what to shoot and how to shoot it."

For independent station managers looking to increase the visibility and value of their TV stations, even better than the one-night-a-week promise of an "Action Pack" is the chance to become part of a national group of unified stations who have all agreed to air the same programming at the same time--the way CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox do. Many independent stations doubled their value when they hooked up with the Fox network in the late 1980s--and now Paramount and Warner Bros. are offering that opportunity to other independents.

"The primary advantage to being part of a network is having a moniker," said Rick Feldman, general manager of KCOP-TV Channel 13, part of the Chris-Craft station group that has joined with Paramount's station group to form the proposed Paramount Network. Assuming the venture gets off the ground, KCOP will have to abandon its logo, the Very Independent Channel 13, but Feldman doesn't mind.

"It's better to be part of a large, successful group that both advertisers and viewers know as a marketing entity," he said. "The power of that goes a long way, especially in promotion. In TV Guide, for instance, you'll see big stories about programming on a minuscule cable network that appeals to 0.2% of the population. But because they've got a publicity machine and a national reach, they get coverage."

The name has to mean something, however. Keith Samples heads up Rysher Entertainment, one of the industry's top syndicators. His upcoming series include "RoboCop" and "Thunder in Paradise," both recently cited as the hottest new one-hour prospects in a Broadcasting & Cable magazine survey of station managers, as well as "Lonesome Dove: The Series."

Samples considered forming his own network on the strength of his programming, but there's one problem:

"The Rysher name doesn't have the value for stations that a Warner Bros. or Paramount does, and justifiably so," Rysher said. "There's a perceived value at the station level in brand identification. Fox is a brand name, and it creates value for its stations. Stations say, 'If I can brand myself with a big studio name, somehow because of the history and diversity of product in the past, that will translate into the connotation of quality.' Obviously, we don't have that, so we can't sell that."

Like Fox, with its time-honored logo of searchlights cutting through the nighttime sky, both Warner Bros. and Paramount are massive studios with many holdings. Warner Bros. produces loads of children's animation for the Fox network, more network TV series than any other supplier in Hollywood, and led the movie industry in box-office grosses in 1993. Paramount, meanwhile, has earned the respect of TV stations across the country with the success of its "Star Trek" franchise, as well as such syndicated programs as "The Arsenio Hall Show" and "Entertainment Tonight."

In a bitter battle, Warner Bros. and Paramount are racing desperately to sign TV stations, because realistically there are only enough remaining independent stations to reach perhaps 70% to 75% of the country.

"If you look at financial realities, only one network will launch," said Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount Television Group. Paramount hopes to launch its network next January with two hours of prime-time programming two nights a week, before eventually expanding to seven nights, afternoons and late night. "Star Trek: Voyager" will serve as the bedrock of the network, which according to sources will heavily target young male viewers with a mix of programming.

The Paramount network may hit a roadblock if Paramount Communications is purchased by the home-shopping cable network QVC, whose chairman, Barry Diller, was the chief architect of the Fox network and reportedly does not want to go through the process of forming another TV network. Nevertheless, Paramount is charging ahead with its plans.

So far, the Paramount network has lined up enough broadcast stations to cover 38% of the nation. In most of the markets where there is only one remaining independent station, Paramount has beaten Warner Bros. to the punch by signing that station first. One reason the Paramount network is attractive to station owners is because the stations are not being asked to pay any of their profits to the network, something Warner Bros. affiliates must do. The Paramount network and its station will simply split the advertising time, reflecting current syndication deals.

Paramount, like Warner Bros., hopes to have enough TV stations to reach 85% of the country before launch (CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox reach nearly 100%). To obtain that number, McCluggage has to sign a fair number of stations already affiliated with other networks--he estimates 10% to 15%--which will be allowed to run the Paramount programming whenever they want, thereby weakening the network because it may not be in prime time.

Warner Bros.' WB Network, scheduled to launch this summer with one night of original programming, will have a promotional advantage by running virtually all of its programming at the same time. It will follow in the footsteps of Fox by specifically targeting young viewers--mostly with comedy, but also with light drama and reality programming. Young people are more willing to try something new, which makes them desirable to advertisers and more likely to sample a new network, said Jamie Kellner, the former president of Fox Broadcasting who now is at the helm of the Warner Bros. network.

"The plan for Fox was very much like the plan for the ABC network when it was new," Kellner said. "New entrants into this business are kind of driven toward that younger demographic because they're not going to be able to compete on a household basis with the other networks. It's natural to try and attract a unique demo when your ratings are lower."

The WB Network, which includes the Tribune Broadcasting station group (including KTLA-TV Channel 5), has already lined up enough outlets to reach more than 70% of the country. Paramount executives aren't impressed, though, because the WB Network has developed a hybrid plan that will use both local broadcast stations and cable channels to form its network--most notably Chicago superstation WGN to boost its coverage across the country.

Kellner remains unswayed by the Paramount executives who have scoffed at his cable plan. "It's old-fashioned thinking to assume people will not watch any channel on their set where there's good programming and promotion," he said. "If there's anything we proved at Fox, it's that people don't watch networks--they watch programs. We took weak UHF stations with no viewership, and seven years later they're competing toe to toe with big VHF stations with large network affiliations."

However the Paramount-Warner Bros. battle shakes out, viewers would seem to be the beneficiaries of this scramble to create more programming.

"This is what Americans want: more original programs in prime time," Kellner said. "Four or five or even six networks are required to satisfy the diversity of the interest of American people today. I think it's a natural thing that has happened, and it had to happen."

But, as many cable subscribers have complained, more TV is not necessarily better.

"With all these new venues opening up, the share of the marketplace will be lower," observed William Shatner. "And with that taking place, fewer people will see the programming, so less advertising dollars will be paid per minute, and the less money you will have in the budget to make more programming. And then fewer people will watch because the programming won't be as good. So it's a self-generating terrible situation, and the creators have to do their best to make every dollar count."

Universal's Filie acknowledges the risks but says the studios are compelled to follow the new paths that are opening to them.

"There is a TV world beyond this one we know now, with a multi-channel cable universe. It's like 'Brigadoon' right now, and we have to peer into the mist to see it," Filie said. "Every day brings a transition from what TV has been, to what TV will become. I don't think anybody thought Fox would have made it. They seemed like they were going into the vinyl record business when CDs came out.

"But they designed a lean network for the '80s, and Warner Bros. and Paramount are trying to establish a lean network for the '90s. It all boils down to good product. Whatever form the marketplace takes, the gatekeeper will always be looking to form an alliance with companies who can produce good programming."

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