Saturday, March 17, 2007

FOX Sports buys stake in IFL

By David Bauder

NEW YORK -- The fledgling My Network TV couldn't get anyone interested in nightly soap operas. Now it's chasing one of the most elusive audiences in television - young men.

The network revamped its prime-time lineup this week to add a martial arts competition and testosterone-fueled movies.

My Network TV was born on the fly after the WB and UPN networks combined to form the CW. Nine of the former UPN stations left behind were owned by News Corp.'s Fox station group, and the company scrambled to patch together replacement programming in time for the fall.

It tried a handful of English-language telenovelas, or soap operas, that ran every night. The hope was to duplicate the success of a Spanish telenovela like "La Fea Mas Bella," which usually brings in more than 5 million viewers each weeknight on Univision.

But My Network TV averaged just 781,000 prime-time viewers through last week, less than a quarter of the 3.2 million people who were watching UPN last season, according to Nielsen Media Research. The schedule brought in neither fans of telenovelas nor the curious and - worse yet - the typical My Network TV viewer was 44, compared to the CW's 33.

"It was an attempt to zig when everyone else was zagging," said Greg Meidel, who became My Network TV president in January.

It was hard to get viewers to commit to watching something almost every night, particularly when there is a strong serial drama on the larger networks most nights of the week, he said.

Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media, said it didn't help that the soaps looked cheap and were populated by faded stars like Morgan Fairchild.

Fox recently bought a stake in the new International Fight League, which has teams that compete in mixed martial arts, Meidel said. Competitions will air Monday and some Saturdays, as My Network takes a cue from cable's Spike, which puts on ultimate fighting competitions.

Movies will run Thursdays and Fridays. Some of the flicks lined up - "Rocky IV," "Lethal Weapon," "Crimson Tide" - show a commitment to attracting young men.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, My Network is airing its final two soaps, "American Heiress" and "Saints & Sinners." Each will air as a two-hour movie once a week, instead of the nightly, one-hour telenovela form.

Guys might not like soaps as much as women, but they will like the scantily clad, beautiful women featured, Meidel said.

"There's eye candy for everyone," he said. "You can watch it with the sound off and still enjoy it."

The new focus was telegraphed last week when My Network aired a special, "Anna Nicole Smith: A Centerfold Exposed." It drew a bigger audience than anything on the network all season.

Young men are a demographic prized by advertisers, which is why so many networks - think Spike and ESPN - go after it. But TV stations are finding it hard to compete with video games, the Internet and other enticements for free time.

At this point, My Network TV's top priority is to stop the bleeding. There are positive signs: the Smith special, a one-time telecast of the World Music Awards and a couple of the movies all reached more than 1 million viewers.

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