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A Network’s Drama

Times Staff Writer

News Corp. next week will roll out “Desire,” a prime-time soap opera that will launch the media giant’s latest experiment in television. The title, however, could just as easily describe company executives’ longing for advertising support for the two programs that will anchor its new broadcasting service, MyNetworkTV.

The network so far has fallen short of its projections of $50 million in commercial sales in advance of the fall season, two company executives acknowledged. They asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Instead, Fox has sold about half of that, or more than $20 million in national ad time, according to one executive. That raises the stakes considerably, particularly if the evening soap operas fail to connect with viewers. Soft ratings could make the shows a harder sell throughout the season.

“Everyone is curious to see how this will play out,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, director of Starcom Entertainment, a division of the ad-buying giant Starcom USA in Chicago. “It defies all of the conventions that make network television work.”

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The company declined to comment for this story.

Unlike daytime soap operas, prime-time telenovelas unfold five nights a week and end after 13 weeks. Although they are wildly popular in Latin America, advertisers question whether they will have mainstream appeal in the U.S. As a result, some have spent cautiously.

With a more traditional approach, the new CW network has sold more than $630 million in commercial time in advance of its fall season, which begins Sept. 20. Its lineup includes a mix of scripted and so-called reality shows.

On Tuesday, when Fox launches MyNetworkTV, it will offer just two shows, both telenovelas. “Desire” is billed as the story of “the tragic destruction of a family and the bonds of brotherhood.” And “Fashion House” pulls back the curtain on the “glamorous yet unscrupulous world of the fashion industry” and stars Bo Derek and Morgan Fairchild, a veteran of such iconic prime-time soaps as “Flamingo Road” and “Falcon Crest.”

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“A lot is riding on these first two shows,” said Shari Anne Brill, programming director for ad-buying firm Carat. “The next three months will be crucial.”

Because MyNetworkTV provides just 12 hours of prime-time programming a week, affiliated stations will fill out their schedules with local shows and syndicated programming.

Fox was in a predicament this year when CBS Corp. announced that it was pulling the plug on its money-losing UPN network so that it could join Warner Bros. Entertainment in building a new contender. In addition to its signature Fox TV stations, News Corp. owns many stations that carried UPN programming, including KCOP-TV Channel 13 in Los Angeles. The CBS-Warner Bros. joint venture to form the CW network left Fox scrambling for a new strategy to program the soon-to-be orphaned Fox stations.

MyNetworkTV is largely the brainchild of one of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s most trusted lieutenants, Roger Ailes. Architect of the successful Fox News Channel, launched in 1996, Ailes was put in charge of the Fox TV station group a year ago, succeeding Murdoch’s oldest son, Lachlan, who abruptly left the company.

Ailes and his team had just eight months to pull programming together. They seized upon the 65-episode “Desire,” which Fox’s TV syndication arm had produced and was pitching to TV stations around the country. Borrowing from the title of News Corp.'s hugely popular social networking website, MySpace.com, and from the Spanish-language networks’ programming strategy, Ailes came up with MyNetworkTV.

One of the main selling points, at least for the Spanish-language networks, has been the relatively low cost of the programming. The story lines have been used elsewhere and adapted for an American audience. A telenovela such as “Desire” reportedly costs about $200,000 for an hourlong episode -- much less than a typical network show, which often exceeds $2 million for an episode of the same length.

However, with 65 episodes to make, the cost rises to $13 million for the 13-week run. Some analysts have said that telenovelas might be a smart play for Fox, particularly because they are so popular among Latinos, one of the nation’s fastest-growing demographic groups.

“Maybe it will bring in some bilingual viewers, provided that they cast some familiar and relatable characters and celebrities from the telenovela world,” Brill said. “But I don’t think Bo Derek or Morgan Fairchild will be big draws for this audience.”

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Fox hopes to snare viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic coveted by advertisers.

Whether these viewers will tune in night after night to the same show is advertisers’ biggest question.

“It will be very hard for some viewers to keep up with a show that unfolds every weeknight,” Brill said.

Starcom’s Caraccioli-Davis agreed.

“The thing about soap operas, or telenovelas, is that they become an addiction, and it’s really hard in the prime-time landscape to develop that type of addiction,” Caraccioli-Davis said.

She added that telenovelas traditionally follow very simple formats, such as “girl from the wrong side of the track falls in love with a rich man” and they are at odds with their families.

“The audience might be looking for more sophisticated storytelling,” she said.

Another concern of advertisers is that Nielsen Media Research won’t report MyNetworkTV’s audience along with the other networks. Instead, the Fox venture is being classified as a “limited network,” and its audience numbers for Monday through Friday nights will be combined for an average rating for the week, a Nielsen spokesman said.

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TV stations orphaned in the consolidation of the UPN and WB networks were eager to keep original programming as part of their schedule.

“We embraced the whole concept very early in the process,” said Will Davis, general manager of WMYT-TV, the Charlotte, N.C., affiliate owned by Capitol Broadcasting Co.

The former WB affiliate station even petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to change its call letters to get in sync with the marketing slogan. In Los Angeles, for example, KCOP refers to itself as “My 13.”

The new branding campaign has become one of the most popular aspects of the change. Davis sent crews into the 22 counties his station serves to get footage of everyday people promoting the station’s new name.

Some were taped with their dogs or their teachers, saying, “This is my teacher,” and this is “My 12,” referring to their channel.

“This allows you to embrace your audience and embrace your city,” Davis said. “We’ve done more with this brand in four months than we were able to in four years with the WB brand.”

Davis said he was hopeful that the programming would catch on as quickly as the MyNetworkTV slogan.

“How big will it be? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does,” Davis said. “But it’s a format that’s been tested all over the world, so I see no reason why it won’t work here in the United States.”

Another hook, he said, was News Corp.'s track record, from the launch of the Fox TV network to Fox News Channel. “When they are committed to something, they typically make it work.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ad dollars

MyNetworkTV’s advance ad sales for its first season have fallen well short of a $50-million projection, insiders say.

Estimated advance ad sales, prime time, 2006-07

(In billions)

CBS: $2.20

ABC: $2.00

NBC: $1.84

FOX: $1.70

CW: $0.63

MyNetworkTV: $0.05

Source: Merrill Lynch


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