Originally created 06/20/06

Will My Network TV really become your network?



NEW YORK - Anyone who grumbles that there's nothing new in television hasn't heard about My Network TV.

Created out of the ashes of UPN and due to take flight on Sept. 5, this haven for prime-time soap operas represents one of the most intriguing rolls of the dice that the TV business has seen in several years.

It will test whether there is an English-language marketplace for telenovelas, the steamy, short-run stories that are all the rage in Latin America and the programming foundation for Univision, the nation's most popular Spanish-language network.

"There's always been a reluctance on the part of American television to recognize formats from around the world," said Jack Abernethy, CEO of Fox Television Stations. "That reluctance kept things like 'American Idol' off the air for a long time while it was popular in England. It kept 'Survivor' off the air.

"There's been this notion that we're somehow more sophisticated and that these kind of plot lines aren't going to work here," he said. "This is going to prove them wrong."

My Network TV was created by the Fox station group out of necessity, not design.

Executives from CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Entertainment surprised the industry in January by announcing they would fold their money-losing WB and UPN networks, and create the new CW network by combining the assets of both.

Abernethy suddenly had a problem. Fox owned nine UPN affiliates, reaching 26 percent of the nation's viewers, in big cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington. He had no idea what they were going to put on the air in only eight months.

He and his colleagues considered several alternatives, scouring the market for reruns of old network hits. Running syndicated fare like "Dr. Phil" in prime time was one possibility.

"It became apparent that the solution was right under our nose," Abernethy said.

Corporate cousin Twentieth Television was already developing telenovela projects for either sale in the syndication market or as a hedge if UPN folded, he said. They decided to make this the focus of a new network.

Other stations left in the lurch by the CW quickly signed on to the concept. Through last week, My Network TV had stations reaching 85 percent of the U.S. viewing public in the fold. (Boston has no My Network TV affiliate yet, but negotiations are continuing.)

My Network TV will "strip" its stories just like daytime soap operas, with a new episode five nights a week. The dramas will run in 13-week increments - four separate stories under the "Desire" umbrella at 8 p.m. and four stories under "Secret Obsessions" at 9 p.m.

The network has purchased scripts that aired successfully overseas, like the "Table for Three" story that debuts this fall. The saga of two brothers who fall in love with the same beautiful woman, while each man is being chased by the Mafia, was a big hit when it aired in Colombia.

Some of the stories are familiar for other reasons. "Dangerous Love" will remind some viewers of "Romeo & Juliet," while "Watch Over Me," about a rich man who hires security to protect his fiancee, has elements of the movie "My Bodyguard," said Bob Cook, president of Twentieth Television.

"There are some very popular telenovelas that we did not option," Cook said. "The reason is because they were too corny, too over-the-top, too overstated and didn't adapt well to American sensibilities. You have to be smart about that."

Most of the casts are attractive unknowns, although there are few familiar faces sprinkled in. Bo Derek plays a powerful fashion icon in one story, while Sean Young portrays a woman who waits two decades to get revenge on a husband who abandoned her in another. Maria Conchita Alonzo, who has starred in 11 telenovelas, will be featured in a My Network TV story, too.

With the stories moving more quickly than daytime soaps, My Network plans to offer weekend summaries to help viewers keep up with the stories, along with brief review at the outset of each night's episode. Fresh content will also be offered online, Abernethy said.

The industry is looking at the idea with tentative curiosity, said Jack Myers, publisher of the broadcasting industry newsletter The Myers Report.

"Whether the telenovela strip concept can work in English remains to be seen," he said. "But given the success of the prime-time soap opera, it seems like an idea whose timing might be perfect."

The Fox stations have also bought the rights to syndicated reruns of "Desperate Housewives," which will begin airing in 2008.

"I don't know how big the telenovelas will play here," said Sharianne Brill, analyst for the ad-buying firm Carat USA. "I know it's big all around the world. But so is soccer - and nobody watches it here."

My Network also seems unsure of its natural audience. The executives stress that they are making stories for all nationalities. But My Network TV also sponsored a float in this month's Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York, a sign that it is trying to attract fans of Spanish-language telenovelas.

Twentieth Television will be able to produce its telenovelas for considerably less money than broadcasters traditionally pay to make dramas and comedies. The mystery is whether viewers will notice - and whether that will make a difference.

It was interesting that during the CW's initial presentation of its schedule to advertisers last month, its executives pointedly referred to a five-network marketplace - essentially pretending My Network TV didn't exist, or certainly doesn't compete on the same playing field.

Yes, Abernethy noticed.

"It tells me that they're worried about us, which is a good sign," he said.

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