MCA, Inc., the country's largest producer of filmed entertainment, recently surveyed television offerings in Los Angeles and New York City over a week to determine how much product MCA puts on the air in a seven-day stretch through its Universal Television and Universal Pictures units.
The totals for the week of Feb. 5 were staggering. MCA accounted for 73 hours in Los Angeles and 67 1/2 hours in New York, including 17 1/2 hours of prime time programming, or more than 25 per cent of the three network's prime time shows.
The totals included weekly series hits like "Kojak," "Bionic Woman," and "Rich Man, Poor Man;" the NBC "Best Sellers" mini-series "Seventh Avenue;" a three-hour television movie, "Tail Gunner Joe," about the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy; five-day-a-week strip syndications of old series like "Marcus Welby, M.D."; airings of old Universal movies; and also showings of vintage Paramount films for which MCA owns the rights.
Known in Hollywood as both "The Factory," for its presumed ability to crank out films like sausages, and as "The Octopus," for its sometimes smothering domination of the entertainment business, MCA continues to ride high.
The developer of both the made-for-TV-movie and the mini-series, MCA's latest innovation is "Operation Primetime" -- an attempt to circumvent the normal avenues of network distribution for prime time programming by marketing "Testimony of Two Men," a 6-part film version of a Taylor Caldwell novel, to more than 60 independent stations and network affiliates for airing this spring.
MCA president Sydney J. Sheinberg, in an interview, rejected the term "fourth network" for this strategy but preferred instead to call it "fourth opportunity," though it seems to amount to the same thing.
Sheinberg claimed the stations MCA has signed up represent "over 70 per cent coverage in the market," which approaches the audience saturation achieved by one of the regular television networks. If successful, on "Testimony," Sheinberg said he hoped it would "grow into other things."
Another project on the drawing boards is a 90-minute variety series, to be aired as a 5-day-a-week show, called "The American Flyer" with Dan Rowan as the star. It will be "a very expensive show" with remote telecasts and other special features, the MCA president said.
"Everybody is banging on the doors right now, trying to buy it," he added, "but we're holding them at bay, wanting to make sure we can afford to make it."
If MCA has a complaint these days, it's that TV production is getting so expensive -- easily more than $500,000 for a one-hour episode of a mini-series --initial costs.
Traditionally, the networks have paid about 75 per cent of production costs on a series, with break-even and profitability dependent on repeat airings and syndication. If a show doesn't get to the syndication stage, often costs are not recovered by the producing company.
Now Sheinberg would like the networks to pay closer to 100 per cent, particularly for the proliferating and expensive mini-series. On the original "Rich Man, Poor Man," which was a smash in the ratings, MCA has yet to recover more than $1 million in costs.
"I think that for the television business to be in proper equilibrium, the television producer is entitled to recover costs from the people who buy it for primary use," he said.
How are the networks responding? "Some better than others," he replied. "There is a greater awareness on their part that we're not just in the business of taking orders."
None of this means that MCA is going to the poor house, and MCA chairman Lew R. Wasserman noted that his company's bargaining position with the networks "has improved" because of the upheaval in the ratings that has put ABC in first while CBS and NBC scramble for new products to shore up their decimated schedules.
Earnings for 1976 have not yet been released, but they are expected to fall short of 1975's record results of $95.5 million on revenues of $811.5 million, which were substantially boosted by the release of "Jaws," the all-time motion picture blockbuster with worldwide box office receipts now approaching $200 million.
Wasserman, however, expects 1976 to be the second best year for the company. MCA's net income for the first nine months of 1976 came to $69.1 million, down 3 per cent from the year before, on revenues that were virtually unchanged at $575 million. For all of 1976, analysts project earnings at about $87 million to $90 million.
The company, meanwhile, has no debt and sits on a pile of cash estimated at $150 million dollars at the end of last year which puts MCA in the market for acquisitions.
Besides its motion picture and television activities, the company already now includes MCA Records (formerly Decca); MCA Recreations (which operates the Universal Studio tour that attracts more than 3 million paying visitors each year, the food and recreational facilities at Yosemite National Park, and the tour vehicles around the Washington, D.C. mall); publisher G.P. Putnam & Sons; a savings and loan in Colorado; Spencer Gifts, a retail and mail order chain; and MCA Disco-Vision which along with N.V. Philips, the Dutch company, plans to begin marketing videodisc players before the end of 1977.
Sources indicate that among the companies MCA has been looking at for possible takeovers include Marriott Corp., Holiday Inns, Inc., and the Newhall Land Co., which owns a nearby amusement park and real estate.
"We've looked at a lot of things," said Wasserman, brushing aside any specific speculation. He said MCA looked at Sea World for four years before it made a tender offer last year --which it lost out on -- and intends to be similarly prudent before making any other takeover moves.
"In the meantime," said Wasserman, 64, who has been at the helm of MCA for more than 30 years and chairman since 1973, and who has a ruthless manager with a keen eye for reputation as a shrewd and sometimes the bottom line, "I don't happen to believe cash is going out of style."