Sex doesn't sell
News Corp.'s MyNetworkTV, which airs hot young actors in sexy soap operas, is off to a rocky start. Does the network need to move beyond telenovelas?
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- There are some things that Americans just don't get, even though the rest of the world does.
Soccer. The metric system. Bidets. Now, you can add telenovelas to that list.
Telenovelas, prime-time TV soap operas that run episodes every night, are big hits around the globe, especially, as the name would imply, with Spanish-language audiences.
With that in mind, News Corp (Charts)., the company behind the Fox TV network, decided this spring to launch a new network called MyNetworkTV that would air English-language telenovelas featuring young actors engaging in catfights and, of course, lots of sex.
MyNetworkTV launched earlier this month, with coverage on stations covering about 96 percent of the country, running two shows in primetime: "Fashion House" and "Desire." Each show has five original episodes a week and a recap episode on Saturday night. These two shows will run for 13 weeks, and then two new telenovelas will take their place.
News Corp. expressing patience with poor start
But so far, MyNetworkTV is Nobody's Network. Ratings for "Fashion House" and "Desire" have been extremely low. According to Nielsen Media Research, a little more than a million viewers have tuned in to watch each episode per night.
Americans apparently like to watch their daily soaps during the afternoon, thank you very much.
It brings to mind the age-old philosophical question: If one attractive woman smacks another hottie across the face but no one is watching, does the slap still make a sound?
Despite the poor start, News Corp. is sticking with telenovelas. Bob Cook, president of News. Corp subsidiary Twentieth Television, said that ratings were within the network's expectations and that there are no plans to abandon the format. Cook added that there will be more marketing for MyNetworkTV in the coming months, including promotions in Wal-Mart (Charts) stores for "Watch Over Me," a show that will debut on the network in December.
"We knew these are the early steps in a long journey but we're pleased with where we started from and we are encouraged," said Cook.
One media buyer agreed that News Corp. will need to be patient and that there is no need to pull the plug on the telenovela concept just yet.
"Everyone going in knew that this was a new approach and as such, it was going to take some time to build an audience. In primetime, this is a unique concept," said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming with Katz Television Group.
Competition will get tougher
But MyNetworkTV faces an uphill battle. Clearly, News Corp. is targeting the lucrative 18-34-year-old demographic that Madison Avenue does cartwheels trying to reach.
Just look at the branding behind the name of the network. It's an obvious reference to MySpace, the popular social networking site that's also owned by News Corp. However, based on the ratings, it seems like the MySpace crowd is not flocking to MyNetworkTV.
"I would say News Corp. has to be somewhat disappointed with the early results of MyNetworkTV," said Ed Martin, programming editor with MediaVillage.com, an independent television industry research site.
But Cook said that MyNetworkTV has yet to fully tap the potential of MySpace. He said that beginning next month, the network will promote a "casting call" on MySpace's popular music sites where bands can submit songs to be used on the network's shows.
"We hope that the viral nature of this and word of mouth will get people talking about and tuning into the shows," Cook said.
Still, if MyNetworkTV couldn't reach a big audience during the first two weeks of September, a time when most of the major broadcast networks had yet to start premiering episodes of returning hits and new shows for the fall season (Fox was the one exception), then how will MyNetworkTV have a chance of attracting viewers now that CBS (Charts), Disney's (Charts) ABC, and GE (Charts)-owned NBC are rolling out their big guns?
"The other networks are bombarding viewers with the return of their favorite shows and high profile new shows so it is daunting for MyNetworkTV," Martin said.
Plus, competition for teens and young adults is about to get tougher now that the new CW network, a joint venture of CBS's UPN and Time Warner's WB, is set to launch on September 20. Keep in mind that it was the creation of the CW that forced News Corp. to launch MyNetworkTV in the first place. (Time Warner (Charts) also owns CNNMoney.com.)
News Corp. owned several local TV stations that had aired UPN and would have been left out in the cold because of the merger of UPN and the WB since the WB affiliates in the markets where News Corp. owned UPN stations were the ones that would be airing the new CW.
Network needs more than just telenovelas
Nonetheless, Carroll predicts that ratings will improve once MyNetworkTV starts airing its second round of telenovelas in December, a month when the major networks often run repeats after November sweeps.
"They have a better shot with the next cycle. Viewers will have certain expectations and MyNetworkTV will be premiering them at a time when there's not as much noise."
Martin agrees. He said it's hard to imagine why people who have already missed the first two weeks of "Fashion House" and "Desire" will want to begin watching now since their run will end by December. But he said there's a chance the two shows that will launch in December will be bigger hits than "Fashion House" and Desire" as more people get used to what the network is about.
Still, Martin thinks that if MyNetworkTV really wants to get more young viewers, it might make sense for News Corp. to consider launching other types of programs instead of relying solely on telenovelas. He said reality shows or even a prime-time talk show could be successful.
"Basic cable networks like Bravo remain highly competitive with their reality shows. There's always room for more of these if they are well done," he said. "And talk shows could do well. Why is Larry King left alone to dominate that arena? If you had an Oprah or Ellen type of quality talk show in prime time, this could work well for MyNetworkTV."
So even though MyNetworkTV is off to a rocky start, don't rule it out just yet. After all, News Corp. chief executive officer Rupert Murdoch has arguably one of the better track records in TV over the past few years.
"I would never underestimate Rupert Murdoch's willingness to win. He's going to do what he needs to do," said Carroll.