Affiliates cite network abuses in FCC filing

Mar 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In a clear sign of the deteriorating relationship between affiliates and their networks, representatives of the major affiliate organizations last week asked Uncle Sam to investigate allegations of network abuse.
In a petition to the Federal Communications Commission, affiliates alleged that the Big 4 networks are running afoul of agency regulations by regularly demanding and getting agreements that effectively gut an affiliate’s freedom to pre-empt network programming.
The petition also alleges that Fox Broadcasting Co. has been requiring affiliates to cede control of capacity on their digital channels, another purported violation of the FCC code.
In addition, the petition says Fox, NBC and ABC have been putting undue pressure on affiliates by including stipulations in affiliate agreements giving networks the right to refuse the transfer of an affiliation when a station is sold.
The affiliates, working through the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, also asked the FCC to investigate network efforts to persuade affiliates to participate in collaborative efforts to gather and distribute news, such as Voter News Service and the Network News Service.
In addition, the affiliates urged the FCC to investigate escalating efforts by networks to use network time on local stations to encourage broadcast viewers to switch to network cable channels and Internet sites.
“By making it more difficult for local stations to attract audience and advertising revenue, these network practices threaten affiliates’ economic viability,” the affiliates said. “The commission should examine the networks’ increasing tendency to advantage their other business interests at the expense of local station service.”
At deadline, representatives of Fox and the National Association of Broadcasters had no comment.
But an ABC spokesperson said: “The references in the NASA petition regarding ABC are wholly without merit. The public would be best served by deregulating the broadcasting industry to reflect today’s highly competitive environment, not the sweeping and unjustifiable governmental intrusion that NASA demands.”
A CBS official commented: “This is an ill-advised and extremely disappointing action, particularly given CBS’s strong, ongoing commitment to the network/affiliate relationship. CBS categorically denies taking part in any unlawful activity whatsoever, and we are confident that the FCC will find no merit in these baseless and irresponsible charges.”
An NBC spokeswoman also said they were confident the FCC won’t find any any merit in the charges. “It’s a shame this organization filed this request,” she said. “We’ve made so much progress in terms of our relationship with our affiliates-it’s been as good as it has been for many years.”
Alan Frank, NASA chairman, said the petition was intended to check network leverage.
“We are partners with the network, but we cannot stand by and let them control our local stations,” said Mr. Frank, who is also president of Post-Newsweek Stations. “We know what works best for our local communities, and by law those decisions cannot be made in Hollywood or New York.
“Both Congress and the FCC have long cared about localism and diversity, and this petition establishes that those core values of our nation’s broadcasting system are at risk.”
Major station executives such as Mr. Frank, David Barrett, Jack Sander and Andy Fisher are in Washington this week meeting with individual congressmen to try to rally their support.
Sources said the affiliates are particularly concerned about network power now because GOP FCC Chairman Michael Powell has signaled his interest in relaxing rules that currently bar broadcasters from owning stations reaching more than 35 percent of the nation’s TV households.
The networks want to ax or raise the cap. But the affiliates fear that would give the networks too much additional power over them.
“The results of the inquiry will help guide the commission’s enforcement responsibilities and inform the commission about the wisdom of modifying existing FCC rules and policies to promote further Congress’ commitment to localism and diversity in over-the-air broadcasting,” NASA said in a statement.
NASA represents more than 600 affiliates of the Big 3 TV networks.