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CW Network Announcement Sends Shockwaves Through NATPE

(LAS VEGAS) — Unaware that the television programming landscape as we know it had just undergone a seismic change that would forever alter the business of broadcast television, I entered the working press room at the Mandalay Bay Resort early yesterday morning in search of my badge, a schedule of the day’s events and a cup of coffee.

Within moments, a wide-eyed publicist raced over to me, his blackberry clutched firmly in hand. He looked stunned, his expression one I would see over and over again in the hours to come in meeting rooms and on the convention floor here at the 2006 National Association of Television Programming Executives convention. “Have you heard the news?” he asked. Before I could respond he added, “It’s huge. There will be no other news today. Nothing else is going to matter once you hear this.”

Thoughts of terrorist attacks, assassinations and natural disasters raced through my mind as his fingers worked the keypad on his blackberry. Then he held it up, the huge news of the day displayed on its tiny screen.

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The headline read: “CBS Corporation and Warner Bros. Entertainment Form New 5th Broadcast Network.”

“They’ve killed The WB and UPN,” the publicist added.

In other words, as I would quickly learn, the corporations involved in the creation of the new network, named The CW Television Network, did not merge The WB and UPN. They elected instead to cease operations of both – to shut them down – and to form an entirely new network comprised largely of television stations owned by Tribune Broadcasting and the CBS Corporation’s UPN affiliates.

“Killed” may have been too strong a word, because much of the programming on The WB and UPN will survive to form the first schedule of The CW, set to launch in September. But there will likely be many jobs lost as a result, and the creative community in Hollywood now has significantly fewer hours of primetime broadcast real estate for which to develop content. The CW will program 13 hours of primetime a week at its launch, as does The WB. The ten primetime hours currently available via UPN will be gone. The CW will also schedule two hours on Sunday afternoons (likely repeats of primetime shows), five hours on Saturday mornings and two hours Monday-Friday afternoons.

Certainly, the timing of this announcement was extraordinary, coming on the opening day of the NATPE convention, at which television station personnel meet with program producers and distributors to see what they have to offer. Once upon a time a great deal of business was done at NATPE, but the growth and consolidation of station groups in recent years eliminated much of the need for this annual gathering, since so much buying and selling was being done in advance. NATPE organizers have worked tirelessly and successfully to introduce new business to the annual agenda, especially in the areas of technology and international distribution.

But yesterday’s announcement seemed to turn back the clock. Executives, programmers and journalists alike walked around for hours in a state of quiet shock, not quite certain what to say or think. And then certain realizations began to set in: The end of The WB and UPN would leave a large number of stations not included in the creation of The CW, most of them owned by Fox, with huge holes in their prime time schedules come September. The executives at those stations would have to start modifying agreements for current programming and shopping for additional shows as soon as possible. And they were in the perfect place to do so.

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Suddenly, a sense of new excitement – or, perhaps, old energy – began to crackle through the halls of the Mandalay Bay and the aisles on the convention center floor. More than one attendee was heard to quip: “Maybe they should extend this convention – for another two weeks!”

There was also a great deal of speculation as to what Fox would do on behalf of its suddenly schedule-challenged affiliates. Would it simply fill in the blanks as best it could, perhaps utilizing Twentieth Television’s promising new English-language telenovela Desire as handy emergency programming? Or would it use all that real estate to launch a new sports network? A new business network? Or another kind of network altogether?

(Desire, incidentally, was “fast-tracked” this week to launch in June after receiving a very favorable response from the syndication marketplace. Twentieth Television plans to produce at least three 13-week, 65-episode story arcs per year within the Desire franchise. Each arc will be an Americanized version of a successful Latin American telenovela.)

The announcement of the creation of The CW eclipsed everything else at NATPE yesterday, including appearances by Martha Stewart at the NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution booth and Rachel Ray at the King World-CBS-Paramount booth. Stewart was on hand to promote the second season of her daily series; Ray to talk up her new daily series set to premiere in September.

Contents Copyright 2005 by MediaVillage LLC.

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