News Corp. next week will roll out "Desire," a prime-time soap opera that will launch the media giant's latest experiment in television. The title, however, could just as easily describe company executives' longing for advertising support for the two programs that will anchor its new broadcasting service, MyNetworkTV.
The network so far has fallen short of its projections of $50 million in commercial sales in advance of the fall season, two company executives acknowledged. They asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Instead, Fox has sold about half of that, or more than $20 million in national ad time, according to one executive. That raises the stakes considerably, particularly if the evening soap operas fail to connect with viewers. Soft ratings could make the shows a harder sell throughout the season.
"Everyone is curious to see how this will play out," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, director of Starcom Entertainment, a division of the ad-buying giant Starcom USA in Chicago. "It defies all of the conventions that make network television work."
The company declined to comment for this story.
Unlike daytime soap operas, prime-time telenovelas unfold five nights a week and end after 13 weeks. Although they are wildly popular in Latin America, advertisers question whether they will have mainstream appeal in the U.S. As a result, some have spent cautiously.
With a more traditional approach, the new CW network has sold more than $630 million in commercial time in advance of its fall season, which begins Sept. 20. Its lineup includes a mix of scripted and so-called reality shows.
On Tuesday, when Fox launches MyNetworkTV, it will offer just two shows, both telenovelas. "Desire" is billed as the story of "the tragic destruction of a family and the bonds of brotherhood." And "Fashion House" pulls back the curtain on the "glamorous yet unscrupulous world of the fashion industry" and stars Bo Derek and Morgan Fairchild, a veteran of such iconic prime-time soaps as "Flamingo Road" and "Falcon Crest."
"A lot is riding on these first two shows," said Shari Anne Brill, programming director for ad-buying firm Carat. "The next three months will be crucial."
Because MyNetworkTV provides just 12 hours of prime-time programming a week, affiliated stations will fill out their schedules with local shows and syndicated programming.
Fox was in a predicament this year when CBS Corp. announced that it was pulling the plug on its money-losing UPN network so that it could join Warner Bros. Entertainment in building a new contender. In addition to its signature Fox TV stations, News Corp. owns many stations that carried UPN programming, including KCOP-TV Channel 13 in Los Angeles. The CBS-Warner Bros. joint venture to form the CW network left Fox scrambling for a new strategy to program the soon-to-be orphaned Fox stations.
MyNetworkTV is largely the brainchild of one of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants, Roger Ailes. Architect of the successful Fox News Channel, launched in 1996, Ailes was put in charge of the Fox TV station group a year ago, succeeding Murdoch's oldest son, Lachlan, who abruptly left the company.
Ailes and his team had just eight months to pull programming together. They seized upon the 65-episode "Desire," which Fox's TV syndication arm had produced and was pitching to TV stations around the country. Borrowing from the title of News Corp.'s hugely popular social networking website, MySpace.com, and from the Spanish-language networks' programming strategy, Ailes came up with MyNetworkTV.
One of the main selling points, at least for the Spanish-language networks, has been the relatively low cost of the programming. The story lines have been used elsewhere and adapted for an American audience. A telenovela such as "Desire" reportedly costs about $200,000 for an hourlong episode -- much less than a typical network show, which often exceeds $2 million for an episode of the same length.
However, with 65 episodes to make, the cost rises to $13 million for the 13-week run. Some analysts have said that telenovelas might be a smart play for Fox, particularly because they are so popular among Latinos, one of the nation's fastest-growing demographic groups.
"Maybe it will bring in some bilingual viewers, provided that they cast some familiar and relatable characters and celebrities from the telenovela world," Brill said. "But I don't think Bo Derek or Morgan Fairchild will be big draws for this audience."
Fox hopes to snare viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic coveted by advertisers.
Whether these viewers will tune in night after night to the same show is advertisers' biggest question.
"It will be very hard for some viewers to keep up with a show that unfolds every weeknight," Brill said.
Starcom's Caraccioli-Davis agreed.