Independent television stations across the country--those that have not joined the pioneering Fox net work--are facing a prime-time programming challenge. With Fox's expanded schedule and a rise in cable TV production, an unprecedented number of original programs are cutting through the airwaves, coursing through coaxial cable and sizzling off satellites.
"There's more first-run television production now than there has ever been," said Lawrence Laurent, communications vice president of the New York-based Assn. of Independent Television Stations.
Instead of retreating into the network shadows this season, KCOP Channel 13 is fighting fire with fire. The Los Angeles independent has teamed with New York independent WWOR-TV and with MCA Television Entertainment to produce three flashy new TV series, debuting this week, to compete with the networks in prime time.
"Right now first-run products are the wave of the future," KCOP station manager Rick Feldman said. "I don't think it's possible to produce 24 hours a day of first-run product, but the more you can acquire the better position you're in to compete with the networks."
KCOP has built two blocks of prime-time programming from 8-10 p.m.--on Tuesdays with the new one-hour series "They Came From Outer Space" and "She-Wolf of London," and on Wednesdays with the syndicated Paramount series "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the new "Shades of L.A."
Together, these four programs form what Feldman calls the Hollywood Premiere Network. Although billed as "network-quality series," their budgets have been estimated by insiders at $600,000 per episode, compared to the $1 million-plus spent on one-hour network series.
If the new series receive solid ratings in Los Angeles and New York, they will be offered to smaller markets around the country in syndication. If that happens, the partners in Hollywood Premiere Network could cash in big.
"If just one of our three new shows succeeds, we will come out very well," said general manager Michael Alexander of WWOR, which is owned by MCA Broadcasting Inc. "One of the ideas behind this is to develop your own prime-time shows so you can control your own inventory. That's where local stations have been hurting, paying the high cost of syndicated fare."
Independent TV stations are also being squeezed by the skyrocketing costs of TV movies. Packages from film studios--traditionally the bread and butter of independent TV stations--are being snatched up by cable channels who can afford to pay higher prices.
Last October, USA Network made headlines when it paid an estimated $50 million to $60 million for a package of 26 Touchstone films, including "Dead Poets Society," "Three Men and a Baby" and "Good Morning, Vietnam." It was the first time a basic cable network preempted the syndication market on a major motion picture package.
To compete in the marketplace, independent TV stations are increasingly banding together and forming alliances with movie studios to produce programming.
"We've had infinite variations on that theme over the last 10 or 15 years," said Laurent, who is the former TV critic for the Washington Post.
With occasional Top 10 rating hits in "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children," the aspiring Fox network has proven that there is indeed strength in numbers--even though more than half of its 133 primary affiliates are UHF stations. (NBC, ABC and CBS have about 200 affiliates each.)
Last year, Paramount Domestic TV and MCA TV reportedly tried to persuade Fox affiliates to jump ship in an attempt to form yet a fifth TV network.
"Producers are no longer restricting their aspirations to the three networks, because they're learning that there is money to be made elsewhere," KTLA general manager Steve Bell said.
KTLA is part of Tribune Broadcasting, a network of seven major independent stations that reach about 20% of the country.
"There's more of a sense that we have to be the masters of our own future," said Bell, who has several original KTLA series in the works. "That's definitely a trend with independent stations."