Time Warner gained a crucial leg up in its race against Paramount Communications to launch a fifth broadcast network when it signed an agreement Friday with superstation WGN-TV.
The affiliation deal with the Chicago-based cable channel, which reaches 38 million TV homes nationwide, increases the coverage of Time Warner's proposed network to 73% of the country.
"We're definitely going to get there now," said Jamie Kellner, former president of fourth network Fox who is spearheading the Warner Bros. project. "We'll have national distribution without compromising our plan."
Both Time Warner and Paramount have conceded that there is room for the establishment of only one more conventional broadcast network because of the limited number of independent stations in the country that are available for affiliation. Either of the proposed networks will have to reach 80% of all TV homes before it can attract national advertisers.
Paramount has moved quickly since announcing its plans a few weeks ago, signing up 18 stations with access to about 40% of the country's TV homes. Excitement over its new "Star Trek" spinoff in particular has helped Paramount attract several key affiliates that Time Warner had targeted for its WB network.
Time Warner's deal with the Tribune Co.'s WGN-TV allows it to expand its coverage area in one big leap, since the station reaches a national cable audience.
By appearing on the superstation, Warner Bros. hopes to reach markets where it otherwise would be blocked by Paramount. However, some observers said that "piggybacking" on a cable channel is less desirable than a traditional broadcast affiliation.
"Even though technically the reach is there, I don't see it performing at the level necessary to sustain a network," said Dick Kurlander, vice president at Petry Television, a New York-based station consulting firm.
Some analysts point out that WGN-TV is not carried on every cable system in many markets, which would leave the WB network with gaps in its coverage area. That, in turn, could prevent advertisers from committing the kind of dollars necessary to support the network.
"From the buying side, we'll go for the broadcast coverage instead of cable because you get better penetration in most markets," said Bill Croasedale, head of broadcast at Western Media in Los Angeles. "Cable has weak pockets in many older, urban cities."
WB's Kellner says critics are rushing to unfounded judgments and that the proposed fifth network will be able to reach at least 80% of all TV homes in the country through a combination of broadcast, WGN-TV's "superchannel" and local cable systems.
Kellner does acknowledge, however, that WB has been forced to revise its rollout schedule due to what some observers thought was an overly ambitious plan. Originally, Warners planned to launch its network next year with two nights of prime-time programming, expanding to four nights within a year.
Now the network may launch with only one night of programming, add a second within a year, then roll out at the rate of one new night annually.