EXCLUSIVE: As the $71.3 billion Disney-Fox deal nears the finish line, there is a steady earner that often gets overlooked among the assets that will remain behind as part of Fox Corp.: MyNetworkTV.
The programming service, launched with fanfare in 2006 as a bid to counter the emerging CW, had to regroup not long after its debut. Its ambitious slate of English-language telenovelas failed to gain traction, the economy was souring, and MyNetworkTV stations were anxious about the trajectory of their advertising revenue as the country entered a financial crisis.
Rather than abandoning the effort, the company’s then-president, Greg Meidel (who has since become president of corporate sibling Twentieth Television) announced a pivot away from a full-blown network approach and toward a tighter programming focus. Over the decade since the 2009 switch — which reduced the MyNet schedule to two hours a night from Monday to Friday and a steady diet of off-net mainstays like Law & Order, The Good Wife and Dateline repeats — the service has been a consistent performer. Its fortunes have risen due to shifts in the syndication market and an increasing focus on live programming by the soon-to-be-slimmer Fox.
“It’s been a win for independent stations that otherwise wouldn’t have been affiliated with anything,” Frank Cicha, EVP Programming, Fox Television Stations, told Deadline in an interview. MyNet stations’ bankable primetime block often ranks among the top 10 across all of broadcast and cable, even in the 18-to-49 demo. That bolsters ad revenue, which is shared with stations in a barter model. More than 200 national advertisers bought time against MyNet shows in 2018-19, the company said.
Assessing the ultimate financial value of MyNetworkTV is a tricky task, of course, but it is seen internally as an important piece of overall television revenue across 21st Century Fox, which reached $5.2 billion in fiscal 2019. The company generally declines to break out specifics for the stations or any subsets, but local broadcasting trade website TVNewsCheck estimates station revenue to be in the range of $2 billion a year. The Jack Abernethy-led station unit has overseen MyNetworkTV from its inception.
Cicha said the evolution of the syndication business has provided tailwinds that were not expected when the major changes took effect in 2009. “Exclusivity has become less and less of an issue because everything is everywhere,” he said, meaning well-established titles don’t have to be available only via MyNet. “There is also less inventory being offered in syndication, particularly in off-net,” Cicha added.”The old rule that the less something can be seen, the more compelling it is, no longer applies.”
Another strategic advantage is that MyNetworkTV on a corporate level is that its programming airs on 10 Fox-owned duopoly stations in major markets including New York, LA and Chicago. That means when live events like last summer’s World Cup soccer tournament run past their scheduled time, local news can switch to the MyNetwork affiliate in the same market. That option can be an important financial lever for Fox to pull as it increasingly looks to emphasize live programming. In Washington, Fox-owned WDCA officially rebranded as “FOX 5 Plus.”
The current setup of MyNetworkTV is quite a bit different than its early days. Stephen Brown, EVP Programming and Development for Fox Television Stations, no longer has a day-to-day role involving the programming service, but his tenure at Fox began in the trenches of the push toward launch.
“I had just joined Twentieth Television and my first task was to find novelas we could find in the Spanish-language market” and adapt into English-language versions, he recalled. “They needed programming quickly.”
The effort to fill the pipeline with six series, with 65 episodes of each, meant three crews shooting simultaneously and thousands of pages of shooting scripts being written and organized, with production logistics to match.
“The vision of the rollout was flawed,” Brown reflected. “We assumed people would watch an original show five days a week, which at the time they didn’t. Now, with streaming and binge-watching, they will.” In an interesting twist, two of MyNetwork’s early originals, Fashion House (starring Bo Derek, Morgan Fairchild and Tippi Hedren) and Watch Over Me (whose cast included Casper Van Dien and Catherine Oxenberg) have found new life on Hulu. Helping them catch on with Gen Z is the presence of younger stars like Taylor Kinney (of Dick Wolf’s Chicago series) and Natalie Martinez (Secrets & Lies, Kingdom).
It isn’t every day that a corporation gets a do-over, Brown acknowledges. “But every time we fail, we learn more than we do from our successes,” he said.
Cicha said the model for MyNetworkTV encourages discipline and on a larger level offers a counter-balance to the company’s more ambitious gambles on new syndicated titles like the upcoming Meredith Vieira-fronted game show 25 Words or Less. Shows are licensed in single-year deals, with some exceptions, with a need for immediately recognizable titles. “We have to say no to a lot of things. It’s that 52-week thing,” he said. “And our bet is on familiar programming. Nobody can be saying, ‘What’s that show?!’”
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