Rude Welcomes for Fox Reality

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It’s the cable industry’s version of Survivor: With News Corp. becoming a contestant, the competition to gain distribution and traction for a handful of 24-hour reality TV-themed networks intensified last week.

Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Networks Group, in what won’t be its last channel launch, will debut the Fox Reality Channel in the first quarter next year.

“This is a no-brainer for Fox,” said Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks. “We have within our libraries thousands of hours of stockpiled shows. We have tremendous resources within the company, within all the studios and networks. We have great talent in the field. If we didn’t do this, it would be a sin, and we should go to jail for not doing it.”

COPYCAT CRIES

But in many ways the timing of last week’s announcement couldn’t have been worse for Fox. It provided plenty of ammunition for Fox’s rivals and critics, by fueling charges that the media giant is both a copycat and a channel-lineup hog.

During the past week, officials at NBC and ABC have accused Rupert Murdoch’s Fox broadcast network of stealing their ideas for reality TV shows. Now, independent companies with their own reality channels claim that Fox is copying them with its Fox Reality Channel.

“They obviously took some of our ideas from our press release and marketing materials,” said Larry Namer, CEO and president of Reality Central, which plans to do a “hard” launch in January. “We’re not the only ones to accuse them of quote 'borrowing.’ ”

At the same time, during a hearing in Washington just last week, cable operators charged that media conglomerates like News Corp. are using their leverage to force their networks onto cable-system lineups, leaving no room for independents. Now, there’s a fear that Fox will try to push the Fox Reality Channel on MSOs.

“Why would that channel be any different than anything we’ve seen so far?” asked Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association. He said he’d just come from a House subcommittee hearing where “a major issue was about shelf space, or really the lack of shelf space and channel capacity, because the programming is owned by five media companies.”

TWO YEARS IN WORKS

Vinciquerra vigorously denied that Fox is copying anyone, saying that its reality network has been on the drawing board for at least two years. Fox has 25 to 30 concepts for new networks that it has researched, he said, a veritable laundry list of potential channels it’s considering launching.

There will be more new cable channels, after the Fox Reality Channel, from News Corp., according to Vinciquerra. Both he and Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, have channel ideas. The possibilities reportedly include a business-news channel, a national sports service and, potentially, converting Fox Sports World into a soccer outlet. Fox recently filed to trademark the name “Fox Soccer Channel,” according to a government database, and already has taken to marketing FSW as “America’s Soccer Channel.”

In response to critics, Vinciquerra claimed that Fox won’t use heavy-handed tactics, like bundling, to force cable systems to carry its new ad-supported reality network, which News Corp. will invest nearly $100 million to launch.

Beyond those issues, there are a number of broader ones in play: whether there is already a saturation of reality programming; whether or not more than one dedicated genre channel can survive; and how these networks will overcome past advertiser aversion to this kind of fare.

“The [broadcast] networks are just so saturated with it [reality programming] that I’m kind of skeptical,” said Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming services for Carat USA Inc. “Advertisers aren’t too fond of supporting most of what’s out there, with the exception of the flagship quality shows.”

VARIED ENTRIES

The reality-TV network field is as varied as the genre. Reality Central, which already has carriage deals with Insight Communications Co. and Mediacom Communications Corp., plans to not only air acquired reality shows but to offer behind-the-scenes information, news and gossip about the hit shows. It has about 150 past-reality show contestants under contract, and USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz is on board as chairman.

Bob Gessner, president of Massillon Cable TV Inc. in Ohio, has seen indie Reality Central’s pitch. He said he thinks the genre has the potential to be successful, but that his interest at this time is light because he’s focusing on VOD and voice-over-Internet protocol rather than expanding his channel lineup.

Reality TV, an international network reaching 120 million homes in Europe and Asia, already has a domestic toehold, having launched on EchoStar Communication’s Dish Network last December.

“Without rubbing it in, we’re slightly ahead of the guys at Fox,” said Chris Wronski, president and CEO of Zone Vision, which owns Reality TV. “We’re glad that people like Fox, or anybody else, are interested in this genre. Certainly, that shouldn’t be limited to one channel.”

Reality TV’s roster includes such classic reality series as LAPD: Life on the Beat, America’s Most Wanted: Final Justice, Rescue 911 and Trauma Center.

There are also two other start-ups looking to present “real-life” television. They sound somewhat similar in their nonfiction approaches, in that they’re upbeat and seeking to celebrate the American spirit.

The America Channel says its strategy is to showcase programming about local heroes and communities around the country, real stories of real people.

“The Fox effort doesn’t affect us at all,” said Doron Gorshein, CEO of The America Channel and a Cable News Network veteran. “The America Channel is not about people eating bugs or putting celebrities in extreme situations. That’s a war that we don’t have any stake in.”

BlueHighways TV is a lifestyle channel being launched by Stan Hitchcock, an executive who helped found, and run, CMT: Country Music Television. It will offer programming on American music, arts and crafts, travel, and outdoor activities like trail riding.

“There are a lot of positive happenings and positive spirit out there in America, even with all the turmoil in the world,” Hitchcock said. “BlueHighways tries to be an oasis of good things happening — encouraging, proclaiming the beauty of America and the good spirit of America.”

The Fox Reality Channel, Reality Central and BlueHighways TV all have video-on-demand components to offer to cable operators, as well. In fact, Reality Central will also offer racier content, not appropriate for the basic channel, via subscription video on demand.

Part of Fox’s reality channel program lineup will be off-network shows from its broadcast network, home of fare such as American Idol and The Simple Life, as well as its studios and cable networks. Vinciquerra declined to specify which Fox shows are earmarked for the new reality network.

He also said that the Fox Reality Network will ramp up original programming over time. It will develop its own shows whose concepts could vary from being something like Cops to Idol. It may also provide commentary and analysis of existing reality series and/or create retrospectives on older reality fare.

Fox’s plans for the commentary, interviews and behind-the-scenes clips are similar to what Reality Central has described as its programming strategy. But Namer questioned how objective Fox will be, or if the other broadcast networks will cooperate with its new channel.

“There is no way that a Fox-owned entity is going to treat the first-run TV fare of its rivals in a fair manner,” Namer said. “It really does prove what Kay and I have been saying — from the very beginning — is a major contention: If you really want to be the viable reality channel and be about reality and serve the fans, you need to be Switzerland. You need to be an independent identity that has no libraries, no corporate agendas, no stockholders that you need to be maximizing value for.”

NO PLAYING FAVES

Vinciquerra denied that the Fox Reality Channel will play favorites with Fox shows.

“Our goal is for this to be a credible channel and one that people can have fun with,” he said. “If we start favoring Fox shows, then I think we’re going to have a big problem getting consumers to watch it.”

Both Vinciquerra and a spokesman for DirecTV denied that there is any deal in place yet for the direct-broadcast satellite company, which News Corp. owns a 34% stake in, to carry the new reality channel.

“We just became aware of the channel, frankly, when Fox Cable issued the press release, and we have yet to have an opportunity to discuss it with them,” DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsocci said. “Honestly, it is a little too early to say anything definitive.”

Reality Central has had “some good conversations with DirecTV,” according to Namer, who hopes he’s not shut out there by Fox Reality Channel.

“If Fox or News Corp. thinks reality is such a great, lasting genre, they’re not just going to stick to Fox-owned properties on DirecTV,” Namer said. “That would be direct violation of what the government was trying to achieve when they approved that acquisition.”

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