Fighting for fifth place

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Twentieth Television syndication veteran Bob Cesa has a new role: He's the guy charged with selling News Corp.'s latest broadcast venture, My Network TV.

Mr. Cesa, exec VP-ad sales for Twentieth and DirecTV, has two months to put together a sales story to present to advertisers and agencies ahead of the critical May upfront period. Sales teams in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are already brainstorming ways to convince advertisers to back what they're calling a "broadcast network."

Others, notably the competition, continue to refer to My Network TV as a syndication service. Monikers might seem relatively unimportant were it not for the pricing difference between broadcast prime time and syndication, which sells for 10%-15% less.

When asked about how pricing would be set for each agency, Mr. Cesa responded that "Bases have been set for UPN and WB, we'll sit down and say `Here's our lineup. We know what network is priced at and syndication is priced at, let's come up with something."'

My Network TV plans to air two saucy English-language telenovelas, "Desire" and "Secrets,"Monday through Friday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. The network is officially a joint venture between News Corp. siblings, Fox Television Stations and syndication unit Twentieth Television.

Thumbs up... so far

So far, agencies have given the audacious last-minute launch the thumbs up, though details about ratings estimates, CPM models and distribution are either unavailable, undecided or yet to be determined. My Network TV, unveiled last week, is Fox Television Stations' response to the CW, a joint venture from CBS Corp. and Time Warner.

"The real determination [of its success] is where it is priced in the upfront," said Doug Seay, senior VP-national broadcast, Publicis & Hal Riney. He added that cheap programming could be a good business model for News Corp. "Maybe they'll price it like Wal-Mart; what they got wholesale, they can price at retail." Mr. Seay, who buys for client Sprint Nextel, added, "If you step back, it's more competition. It's an option, and options on where to spend dollars are good."

Since Sprint currently targets young adults and teens watching The WB and UPN, Mr. Seay said he was also interested in how The CW will be programmed. Owners CBS Corp. and Time Warner are expected to unveil a program slate soon.

"Decisions will be made after development meetings next month," said Chris Allen, VP-associate director of national broadcast, GSD&M, who buys for AT&T. "The idea of novelas is totally untested. It's a cool idea. I'm always in favor of programming that will play better for younger viewers. It is nice to have an alternative."

Battling for affiliates

Distribution will determine who wins with advertisers, since it's rare for agencies to place bets on shows with less than 85% of national coverage. So far My Network TV claims 24% of the U.S. vs. the 50% coverage locked up by the CW. Both networks are battling for the remaining local affiliates to carry their service, though some have suggested that DirecTV could carry My Network TV.

As a lure to local affiliates, the My Network TV executives are offering to split ad inventory 60/40, with the affiliates gaining nine minutes of airtime an hour to sell themselves versus the five minutes Twentieth will sell.

According to a bid letter sent by the CW to stations last week, local stations will get four minutes an hour to sell themselves in addition to being asked to pay a fee to carry the newly formed network. Many have speculated that it will be difficult for CBS Corp. and Time Warner to continue to ask for a compensation fee in the face of competition from My Network TV.

Advertisers who traveled to NATPE in January may already be familiar with one of the My Network TV shows, "Desire." The show was shopped in syndication and attracted advertiser interest in potential product-placement opportunities. It is unclear whether any deals were signed. While My Network is offering up 12 hours of programming a week, The CW plans an afternoon block, in addition to prime time, that would force stations to give up their own lucrative afternoon shows.

Jack Abernethy, CEO Fox Television Stations, said he was starting to form a marketing plan that would involve participation from the local stations carrying the service.

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