MyNetTV execs, affils: Change is good

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Perhaps it's fitting that MyNetworkTV's revamped schedule -- which kicks off Monday in earnest with the first of three new original series -- includes a new show featuring the International Fight League because the News Corp.-owned network is facing a battle of its own in light of disappointing ratings.

Since its launch in September, MyNet has struggled with underwhelming ratings for its all-telenovela schedule. In February, the network announced a more diversified spring schedule that focuses less on scripted dramas, which have been cut back to two nights a week instead of five, and includes two movie nights as well as a new unscripted series, "IFL Battleground."

In fact, the dramas have been performing so poorly that MyNet has scrapped plans to produce scripted programming beyond the next two shows -- "American Heiress" and "Saints & Sinners" -- that debut next week. (The new schedule officially kicked off Thursday night with the 2003 theatrical "The Rundown.")

"I give (MyNetworkTV executives) tremendous credit for launching this network in a short period of time," says Greg Meidel, who in January was named president of MyNetworkTV, which was announced in February 2006. "It took a very valiant effort to make it happen; unfortunately it's been disappointing but a great learning experience for all of us."

In fact, the dramas had been developed by News Corp.-owned Twentieth Television as syndicated programming but instead were used to launch the network, with each airing five nights a week with a total of 65 new episodes.

But the ratings haven't been what executives were hoping for: The network averaged a 0.8 household rating in its first four weeks on the air, according to Nielsen Media Research, but dropped 25% to a 0.6 rating in the most recent four weeks (Jan. 29-Feb. 23) for which national ratings data are available. The first two novelas each averaged a 0.7, while the second pair are averaging a 0.5 through Feb. 23.

"Obviously, they decided to go with the novelas because they thought were was some potential upside there and something that was different than the other networks were doing," Meidel says, noting that "Heiress" and "Saints," the fifth and sixth dramas to air on MyNet, will have their complete 65-episode run (with two episodes airing back-to-back).

But MyNet execs figured it was better to make changes in the schedule sooner rather than later, choosing to relaunch the schedule before the May upfront.

"It wouldn't have been fair to the network, affiliates or advertisers (to wait until fall)," Meidel says. "We are a very station-affiliate-friendly network, so we feel their pain if it's not working out."

Indeed, the financial terms of the affiliate deals were designed to be station-friendly, with no cash license fees and a generous split of the advertising time in each program among the network service and local affiliates.

One station manager expressed his confidence in the executives and their plan for improving ratings.

"We're in with MyNetworkTV for the long haul," says Mark Antonitis, president and GM of KRON San Francisco, which had been independent before becoming a MyNet affiliate. "We know that they're doing everything they can in their power to make long-term success, and we're behind them."

And Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming at station-rep firm Katz Television Group, notes that the station affiliates are encouraged by MyNet's decision to revamp its lineup.

"I think the stations are pleased that there's been a change, and I think they're taking an optimistic wait-and-see attitude on how successful the different elements of the new schedule are," he says.

Indeed, industry sources say that some station affiliates that have signed long-term agreements with MyNet are not pleased with the numbers but are encouraged by the fact that execs are making changes, so they are willing to be patient while the network finds its footing and starts to grow.

However, sources also say that other stations are panicked about the dismal ratings and argue that it's imperative that MyNet have a great upfront. Others point out that Fox, another News Corp.-owned network, saw some failures in its early days too and that MyNet's fellow freshman network, the CW, also is still trying to find its way.

As for MyNet, "I think the stations are going to give the new programming a chance to work, but realistically, they're not going to wait around forever if they could be running other programming and do as well or better," one source says. "Patience is a virtue, but money is money."

But the good news for the stations is that News Corp. is even more invested in making the network a success because 10 of the affiliates are Fox-owned stations. And Meidel argues that there is "higher value" in being affiliated with a network versus being independent.

Moreover, many in the industry applaud MyNet's decision to move away from scripted programming.

Will MyNet ever air another scripted show? "I'm never going to say never, if some point in time the economics make sense," Meidel says. "But I just don't think you can compete against the cost of both development and producing with the 'Grey's Anatomy's' or the 'Houses' of the world. I think we can accomplish our goals much faster by being in the reality business."

Meidel reiterates that MyNet is talking to "the biggest and best names in the reality business" as it looks to fall and beyond. For now, he's scheduling programming that will "make a lot of noise" for the network, like the special "Anna Nicole Smith: A Centerfold Exposed," which aired Wednesday and drew a network-high household rating of a 1.5 in the overnight metered markets, and the upcoming Elton John special "Happy Birthday Elton."

Meidel also is confident that the new lineup is going to attract new viewers -- women as well as the men who are "not being served" by broadcast networks on weeknights -- and get the network "sampled in the way that it hasn't been sampled in the past."

Meanwhile, Antonitis says he is putting his faith in MyNet execs and is encouraged by their decision to make changes now.

"We're very pleased by their action," he says. "In this business these days, you have to have some intestinal fortitude and faith. We took a risk by going with MyNetworkTV, but we did because we have faith and confidence in the people we are working with."

Certainly, Meidel has challenges ahead of him, but he knew that coming into the job. However, the former News Corp. exec, who once served as president and COO of Twentieth TV, was intrigued by the opportunity to help build a new network and remains optimistic about its outlook. He said he's already encouraged by ratings growth on Saturday nights since the MyNet stopped airing the telenovela weekly recaps last month, replacing them with movies. The most recent movie, "The Cider House Rules," averaged a 1.1, nearly tripling the 0.4 rating that the recaps were averaging.

"We want to continue to grow the network, and our first step is turning around the fate and fortunes of MyNetworkTV," Meidel says. "I think you're going to see more continuity as we go forward and get more of a feel for the audience. The best is yet to come."
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