Another blow to broadcast model

CW's giveback on Sunday nights makes sense for its affiliates

LOS ANGELES -- Exactly six months ago, NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker stood in front of an audience of investors at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference and posed two questions.

"Can we continue to broadcast 22 hours in primetime? Three of our competitors don't," he said, referring to Fox, CW and MyNetwork TV. "Can we continue to broadcast seven days a week? One of our competitors doesn't." (CW and MyNet program six nights a week.)

Shortly after Zucker's speech, NBC announced that starting next fall, it will de facto program 17 hours a week by stripping a Jay Leno-hosted talk show at 10 p.m.

In February, MyNet announced that it was leaving the league of broadcast networks to become a "hybrid national program distribution service," switching to syndicated content and giving a second night, Saturday, back to the affiliates, in addition to Sunday.

And late Monday, CW too confirmed that it would return a second night, Sunday, to its affiliates. (They already program Saturday.)

It was hardly a surprise -- the last time the CW aired a homegrown original show on Sunday night was a year and a half ago, the short-lived fall 2007 drama "Life Is Wild."

And its attempt to outsource the programming of the night to MRC this season failed miserably, forcing the network to quickly put together a lineup of "Jericho" reruns and MGM library movies.

Still, the move marks the first time a major broadcast network is dropping a whole night of programming. It is one of the strongest indications to date of the gloomy future of the broadcast model in the face of rising costs, audience erosion and increased competition from cable, a future made only bleaker by the severe economic downturn.

As recently as March, CW Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff denied the possibility of the network giving Sunday back to the affiliates, noting that she was looking to continue airing movies on the night.

But that wasn't sitting well with the affiliates, who can go out and buy the same movies themselves and sell all 16 minutes an hour of ad inventory instead of the 3.5 minutes an hour they get from the network. So behind the scenes, the major CW affiliate groups were already actively lobbying to gain Sunday control.

Said to be instrumental in the negotiations was broadcast veteran Ed Wilson. Since taking over CW's largest affiliate group, Tribune, in February 2008, he began exploring ways to make the CW-affiliates relationship more beneficial for both sides and was an architect of the MRC experiment.

After pressure from its affiliates, CW several weeks ago started the process of prepping a fall transfer of Sunday night to the stations.

"It just makes more sense -- we'll have more inventory and the network will invest its dollars on Monday to Friday, where it has had success and momentum," said Doug Gealy, president/COO of ACME Communications, which owns five CW affiliates.

Shari Anne Brill, senior vp and director of strategic audience analysis at Caret, agreed.

"It's preferable to have 10 hours of outstanding content than have to worry about how to do those other three," she said. "This way you can concentrate on migrating your audience across five nights a week."

Brill also noted that CW, which emerged from the melding of UPN and the WB, "is increasingly becoming like UPN," which never programmed Saturdays and Sundays. The WB did, but it could never crack the night. And CW didn't have a chance either, said Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming for Katz TV Group.

"Sunday night competition has female-driven ABC and male-driven football on NBC and animation on Fox," he said. "You can throw a lot of resources against that and not accomplish a lot."

As the talks between the affiliates and the network heated up in the past couple of days, MGM, already a partner to both as a supplier of the Sunday movie block, became involved and offered the affiliates a barter movie package deal for fall.

"To me, it makes all the sense in the world to have some continuity with the Sunday lineup," said Jim Packer, co-president of MGM Worldwide TV Distribution.

MGM's package includes such titles as "Legally Blonde," "Mr. Mom," "Hannibal" and a couple of James Bond flicks. Under the deal, the stations are getting the movies for free, five minutes more content for the two-hour block and six minutes of ad time an hour. MGM will be selling the rest of the ad inventory.

Packer started signing affiliates Tuesday morning, and by midday, 55%-60% of the stations were on board, including the two top affiliate groups, Tribune and Sinclair.

ACME's Gealy said he hasn't decided yet whether to take the MGM offer or go for something else. He's also looking to possibly buy a sitcom block for the early fringe as well as expanding a morning entertainment show that his station produces.

For duopoly CW affils with a stronger sister station in the market, bidding for local sports is also a lucrative option, he noted.

James Hibberd contributed to this report.