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TELEVISION : There's Action Off the Beaten Path : The ground is shifting in TV's prime time as a slew of new shows arrive--but don't go looking for them in the usual places

January 16, 1994|DANIEL CERONE | Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer. and

Prime Time Entertainment Network, the Disney Afternoon, Spelling Premiere Network and Family Network are all programming blocks being offered for sale to TV stations later this month in Florida at an annual convention of television programming executives. Spelling's attempt to target women with two hourlong romantic comedies in prime time next fall has received solid early support, with stations covering 63% of the country having already agreed to air it.

But the most massive launch in the history of syndication may belong to Universal's "Action Pack" series. Six feature-film producers are creating two-dozen TV movies for a group of 137 stations that collectively reach 90% of the country. Every Wednesday night on KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles, viewers can catch these revolving TV movie franchises, which are being supported nationally with a $15-million promotional bang.

Two of them are spun off from Universal feature films, produced by the original directors of those films: George Gallo's bounty-hunting "Midnight Run" and Hal Needham's car-chase bonanza "Smokey and the Bandit." There's also a sword-and-sandal "Hercules" epic from "Darkman" director Sam Raimi; a martial-arts saga from Rob Cohen, who wrote and directed "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," and a science-fiction yarn from "Animal House" director John Landis about two friends who discover a spaceship.

Universal went with popular titles and genres to help reduce the financial risk inherent in producing for syndication. Without a network license fee, which usually covers 80% to 85% of a program's production budget, the syndicators are essentially handing the shows over to stations for free and recouping their costs by hawking advertising time--a revenue source they give up when they license to the networks--and selling the movies later in reruns and overseas. "In the two-hour form, we feel these adventures will have an aftermarket life even longer than one-hours, because they can live on for years in movie packages and videocassettes," said Universal Television senior vice president Dan Filie. He also expects to spin off the highest-rated movies into hourlong series.

There are advantages in syndication for the creative personnel, too. "Since this is done for syndication," said Needham, who shot his four "Bandit" movies over 72 days in North Carolina on a budget of $2.5 million each, "I didn't have to put up with the network sending me pink pages and orange pages and yellow pages of what to shoot and how to shoot it."

For independent station managers looking to increase the visibility and value of their TV stations, even better than the one-night-a-week promise of an "Action Pack" is the chance to become part of a national group of unified stations who have all agreed to air the same programming at the same time--the way CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox do. Many independent stations doubled their value when they hooked up with the Fox network in the late 1980s--and now Paramount and Warner Bros. are offering that opportunity to other independents.

"The primary advantage to being part of a network is having a moniker," said Rick Feldman, general manager of KCOP-TV Channel 13, part of the Chris-Craft station group that has joined with Paramount's station group to form the proposed Paramount Network. Assuming the venture gets off the ground, KCOP will have to abandon its logo, the Very Independent Channel 13, but Feldman doesn't mind.

"It's better to be part of a large, successful group that both advertisers and viewers know as a marketing entity," he said. "The power of that goes a long way, especially in promotion. In TV Guide, for instance, you'll see big stories about programming on a minuscule cable network that appeals to 0.2% of the population. But because they've got a publicity machine and a national reach, they get coverage."

The name has to mean something, however. Keith Samples heads up Rysher Entertainment, one of the industry's top syndicators. His upcoming series include "RoboCop" and "Thunder in Paradise," both recently cited as the hottest new one-hour prospects in a Broadcasting & Cable magazine survey of station managers, as well as "Lonesome Dove: The Series."

Samples considered forming his own network on the strength of his programming, but there's one problem:

"The Rysher name doesn't have the value for stations that a Warner Bros. or Paramount does, and justifiably so," Rysher said. "There's a perceived value at the station level in brand identification. Fox is a brand name, and it creates value for its stations. Stations say, 'If I can brand myself with a big studio name, somehow because of the history and diversity of product in the past, that will translate into the connotation of quality.' Obviously, we don't have that, so we can't sell that."

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