MyNet stakes out breakout

5:00 AM PST 04/13/2008 by Kimberly Nordyke, AP

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Could Flavor Flav and the Undertaker provide the ratings boost that MyNetworkTV needs?

News Corp.'s 2-year-old network has been seeing some viewer growth since executives decided to dump the low-rated novela strips from the schedule last year. But MyNet has yet to find a breakout hit that could really put it on the map.

The network has a lot riding on its additions to the schedule. "Under One Roof," which marks the network's first scripted comedy, stars Flavor Flav, who drew big numbers on VH1 with his "Flavor of Love" reality franchise. "Roof," which has been supported by a big-scale marketing campaign, debuts at 8 p.m. Wednesday, followed by the best of "In Living Color," hosted by cast member David Alan Grier.

The second addition is consistent ratings performer "WWE SmackDown!" -- featuring the Undertaker and other World Wrestling Entertainment stars -- which will make its debut in the fall after departing the CW at season's end.

"We've been consistent in rolling out new shows almost every couple of months, and that has worked well," said MyNet president Greg Meidel, who joined the network in January 2007 and unveiled its first revamped lineup just two weeks later. "Now we have a bigger-than-life persona in Flav, and 'SmackDown' is a proven commodity. This is the next step in the evolution of MyNetworkTV."

To be fair, MyNet has been generating some buzz with such shows as the "Paradise Hotel" revival; "Jail," its top-rated series, from "Cops" creator-producer John Langley; and a range of magic-themed programming. The network's February sweep numbers were up 66% in total viewers from a year ago (1.2 million vs. 719,000) and up 150% in its target demo of adults 18-49 (0.5 rating vs. 0.2). It also has gone from being the 31st-most-watched network in all of TV in the demo in February 2007 to No. 14 overall a year later.

That's still a long way away from its fellow broadcast networks. But industry observers are applauding the moves MyNet is making.

"I think MNT is on a better track now than when it tried to do the primetime serial soap opera formula, which works well in the U.S. Hispanic market used to it, but not to the general market," Miller Tabak + Co. media analyst David Joyce said. "MNT is raising its profile by taking a more traditional tertiary network programming strategy. I assume it has cut its losses this year and could possibly be profitable within a year."

MyNet has been in the red since its launch -- it was estimated to be losing $2 million a week by February 2007 as a result of the novelas' underwhelming performance. In 2006, it secured less than $50 million in its first upfront (by comparison, its closest broadcast competitor, the CW, locked in $640 million). While it produced its telenovelas for $200,000-$500,000, a fraction of the $2 million-$3 million cost of a primetime drama, the ad money still wasn't nearly enough to run a network.

But in February, News Corp. touted the improved performance of MyNet in its second-quarter earnings release, boosted in part by a $30 million cut in the programming costs, COO Peter Chernin said. He added that the network was still losing money but noted that MyNet had made signficant progress.

One surprise performer has been the magic-themed programming, including the World Magic Awards, which set network ratings records; new series "Masters of Illusion: Impossible Magic," which has grown 26% since its Feb. 6 debut to reach 1.5 million viewers; and Bruce Nash's "The Magicians Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed," which previously aired on sister network Fox. The latter has been doing well enough, in fact, that MyNet has decided to order new episodes for the fall.

When the network launched in September 2006, its entire brand identity was built around the five-day-a-week novelas. Realizing those weren't connecting with viewers, executives five months later decided to cut their losses and began introducing a range of new series over the next several months, from the "Meet My Folks" revival to an International Fight League series. But MyNet is now mounting its biggest effort to make the lineup feel cohesive.



"MyNetworkTV has come a long way," said Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming at Katz Television Group. "Who knew that magic programming would be a success? But they are figuring out what works for their audience and becoming more targeted."

Also on MyNet's fall schedule are returning programs "Celebrity Expose" combined with "Magic Secrets" on Mondays; "Street Patrol" and "Jail" on Tuesdays; "Under One Roof" and clip show "Life's Funniest Moments" on Wednesdays; movie nights on Thursdays and Saturdays; and "SmackDown!" on Fridays.

The network will be presenting its fall schedule -- 70% of which will be available in HD -- to advertisers in one-on-one agency meetings beginning in early May, the same strategy it employed last year. Meidel is optimistic about this year's upfront, noting that MyNet has a new ad sales chief, former Univision executive Judy Kenny.

"We've demonstrated growth on every night, and we're going to emphasize our consistency," he said. "And the advertisers have responded positively. They say it looks a lot more like a traditional network now."

While reality programming will continue to be a big part of the schedule, Meidel is eyeing other scripted series. It's likely that another comedy could join "Roof" on Wednesday nights in the fall, and Meidel confirmed that there are others in development.

"We are looking at other potential scripted comedies with very high-profile, well-known comics, comedic actors and personalities," Meidel said, declining to be more specific. "Producers are coming to us now that weren't interested a year ago in the comedy area, be it scripted or skit comedy or stand-up comedy."

Meidel hinted that he's also considering a return to scripted drama and has his eye on one in particular that's already in development, but again declined to elaborate.

He did say he's planning to "invest in bigger and better titles" for MyNet's movie nights. Recent and upcoming movies have included blockbusters like "Rush Hour" as well as critically acclaimed fare like "Hotel Rwanda," a somewhat awkward fit into MyNet's lineup. However, the highbrow/lowbrow clash seems to work as "Rwanda" has ranked as MyNet's most-watched movie this season. At a time when other broadcasters have scaled back their theatrical acquisitions, Meidel said movies provide good counterprogramming, especially on the highly competitive Thursday night.

Overall, Meidel is optimistic about the future.

"We are starting to become a force, and we'll keep focusing on building our brand and creating value for our network and our owned stations and affiliates," he says. "Our biggest challenge is to continue to invest in programming and make sure we maintain our focus and create an advertiser-friendly environment."
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