News Corp. Fights Back With New Network

Times Staff Writers

A little sex, intrigue and melodrama go a long way in the TV industry. So on Wednesday, News Corp. looked in that direction as it announced plans for a new prime-time broadcast service.

With nine of its Fox stations excluded from a move by CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Entertainment to form a new network called the CW, Rupert Murdoch's media company rolled out a plan for its own steamy venture called My Network TV. It will kick off in late summer with English-language versions of breathless Latin American telenovelas.

Fox's new network is likely to set off another skirmish in the already high-stakes broadcast television wars. Plans for the CW emerged last month as part of the combination of the WB and UPN into one youth-oriented network. That left the Fox-owned stations that carry UPN programming -- including KCOP Channel 13 in L.A. -- without a prime-time schedule.

On Wednesday, Fox shot back with My Network TV, a pared-down programming service that will offer two hours of prime-time shows six nights a week. It is expected to launch Sept. 5 with two serialized dramas in the mode of the sexually charged telenovelas that are wildly popular in Latin America and Asia as well as with Spanish-speaking audiences in the U.S.

In an unusual strategy, the network will air new episodes of the shows each night in a "strip" format usually reserved for syndicated daytime and evening programming.

News Corp. also plans to air reality shows on the new network, which will be promoted heavily on other Fox networks and its recently acquired MySpace.com website.

"One of the handicaps of the CW is because it's a joint venture, it's difficult to throw the full promotional weight of each corporation behind it," News Corp. President Peter Chernin said during a midmorning news conference at a Manhattan hotel. "We're going to throw everything behind this."

News Corp. executives said the venture would not only fill the programming needs of its one-time UPN affiliates but would provide a new model for a cost-efficient broadcast network that was easy to promote and customize for local markets.

"Our goal is to be station-friendly, to offer an entirely new programming concept, and not to put together a huge, bloated network overhead," Chernin said. "The whole feel of My Network TV will be different than anything else that's on broadcast television today."

Adapting the telenovela genre for English-speaking viewers represents a break from traditional American television -- one that other networks are also exploring. However, some industry analysts view the initiative as more pragmatic than revolutionary.

"Given that they were left out in the cold by the formation of the CW network, they had to do something to take care of their own stations," said Shari Anne Brill, programming director for ad-buying firm Carat USA. "They had to fill a gap. This is essentially a syndication buy cleared for prime time."

Jack Abernethy, chief executive of Fox Television Stations, scoffed at the suggestion that the network would be merely a collection of syndicated shows.

"Look, this stuff is ready for prime time," Abernethy said. "We know how to launch television networks at this company, and we are committed to making this work."

Fox's announcement could set the stage for yet another struggle between two underdog broadcast networks, the latest version of the tug-of-war that preoccupied the WB and UPN before they decided to combine forces this year. It may trigger jockeying over the independent stations that were left unaffiliated by the creation of the CW.

The new Fox network may undercut the CW's ability to fetch meaty programming fees from the stations to carry the CW programming, a revenue stream the network was counting on to help it turn a profit in its first year. Among the shows that will be aired on CW are such popular WB and UPN fare as "Smallville," "Veronica Mars," "Gilmore Girls," "America's Next Top Model" and "Everybody Hates Chris."

"The CW is now not the only new game in town," said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for the Katz Television Group, which provides research and advice on advertising buys. "It does allow those stations now considering affiliating with the CW to have a bargaining chip or a fall-back position."

Fox is offering its shows for free to the stations and plans to ask them only to help shoulder some of the costs of marketing the new network. "This is a network by station people, for station people," Abernethy said.

But for their part, CW executives professed to be unconcerned about the new competitor.

"We are certain The CW's programming strength -- with a roster of proven hit programs that consistently rank either No. 1 or No. 2 in the hardest-to-reach young adult demographics -- when combined with aggressive marketing and promotion, is uniquely positioned to benefit and serve viewers and advertisers as well as greatly enhance station values for our affiliated partners," CW spokesman Paul McGuire said in a statement.

My Network TV will initially reach 24% of the country through 10 Fox-owned stations in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and New York that are now UPN affiliates or independents. But executives said they are confident that it will ultimately be carried in 90% of the United States and wasted no time on Wednesday pitching the network to station groups.

"We believe we've been able to sort of invent a new model of a programming service that doesn't take away from stations but adds to stations," said Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox Television Stations.

Instead of offering a complicated checkerboard of programming with different shows every night, the network will run a series of daily serialized programs, beginning with two sex-saturated, soapy series under the banners "Desire" and "Secrets." Produced by Twentieth Television, the News Corp.-owned studio, the programs are Americanized remakes of Spanish-language shows that have aired in Latin America.

Fox had planned to sell "Desire" as a syndicated show during the annual programming marketplace in Las Vegas last month but pulled it when the news about the CW broke. The network had also planned to introduce "Desire" in June at 10 p.m. on its owned stations to see whether English-language audiences would embrace the format. Instead, Abernethy said, Fox decided to hold on to the show and use it to launch the new network.

Also on the fall schedule will be "Table for Three," the story of two brothers on the run from the Mafia who battle over the same woman, and "Fashion House," the tale of a violent corporate takeover in the fashion industry. Each will run every weekday night for 13 weeks, with shows recapping the week's events airing on Saturday. If they do well, the network will offer new story lines.

Despite the popularity of telenovelas in other countries, it's unclear how the genre's melodramatic tone will resonate with English-speaking viewers in the U.S. When Fox executives introduced some of the shows' actors at Wednesday's news conference, the descriptions of the campy story lines generated giggles among the assembled reporters.

Fox executives stressed that they are developing other programs for the new network as well, including a slate of reality series such as "Catwalk," a supermodel competition, and the dating show "Celebrity Love Island."

In addition, Fox News Channel is producing "On Scene," an investigative series examining real-life crimes, for the new network.

Still, some media buyers were skeptical of the schedule's strength, saying it seemed like a hastily assembled response to the CW and noting that several of the reality programs closely resemble shows on other networks, such as UPN's "America's Next Top Model."

"There are a lot of opportunities here for Fox to try something new," said Brad Adgate, research director for ad-buying firm Horizon Media. "But right now, it kind of seems like they are throwing some stuff against the wall to see what sticks."

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Gold reported from New York and James reported from Los Angeles.

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