Affils confab falls; nets to attack cap

Mar 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In another sign of the turbulent times, ABC on Friday scrapped its plans to play host to affiliates and their families May 22-23 at parent company Disney’s new California Adventure theme park.
Instead of one big-ticket affiliates convention, the network will hold five “smaller, more personalized” regional meetings in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Houston in an effort to “increase participation and enhance face-to-face dialogue” with local station managers.
Two days earlier, UPN had announced its decision to substitute a five-day blitz of regional meetings with station owners and general managers for the affiliates convention that previously had been attached to UPN’s May upfront presentations in New York.
NBC and then Fox were at the forefront of the parade away from the expensive ritual of wining and dining affiliates in favor of smaller-and less expensive-working meetings, or, in the case of Fox, a get-together via satellite.
UPN Chief Operating Officer Adam Ware said he hopes the intimate regional format will lead to “a much more honest exchange of ideas.”
“There’s a canyon, a very grand canyon, that’s becoming wider and wider,” Mr. Ware said.
At ABC’s largest affiliate group, Tony Vinciquerra, executive vice president and COO of Hearst-Argyle Television (which owns 10 ABC affiliates and manages another two), characterized the cancellation of the ABC affiliates meeting as an indicator of the tough economic times forcing cutbacks.
“There was no contention,” he said. “There was no animosity in this thing at all.”
At CBS, there was resolute refusal to comment on the subject of its plans to play host to its affiliates at the luxurious Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas in late May.
According to network executives, CBS is feeling betrayed by its affiliates. The network is upset that its affiliates signed off on a March 8 petition asking the Federal Communications Commission to launch a full-scale investigation into a wide range of practices at the four major networks, even though CBS earned an exculpatory clause in a footnote at the bottom of the petition’s first page.
The petition, which accuses the networks of violating FCC rules and public interest, was filed by the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, a 15-year-old coalition of members of the ABC, CBS and NBC affiliate boards. Fox affiliates have never been invited to join the coalition, although some of the station groups that participate in NASA own Fox affiliates.
The petition contained a litany of grievances-some categorized as clear violations of FCC rules (threats of penalty if a station pre-empts network programming, interference in the sale of stations, attempts to muscle in on stations’ digital spectrum) and some were lumped as possible violations (cost-sharing with competitors on Voter News Service, repurposing network programs on outlets that compete with affiliates).
“Although CBS in particular has not engaged in certain of the cited practices,” says the footnote, “the fact that CBS, like the other networks, has enjoyed substantially enhanced profitability demonstrates that the unlawful practices engaged in by the other networks are not necessary, as they sometimes argue, for their financial success.”
The bottom line drawn in the sand by NASA is that the networks put their economic interests over those of local affiliates.
Aggressive consolidation during the past five years has created networks with a capacity to strong-arm local stations as never before, said the affiliates, whose FCC offensive coincides with a challenge by CBS’s parent company Viacom, NBC and Fox of the FCC rule that prohibits them from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the country’s population.
The networks have not decided how to respond to the NASA offensive, which one industry source described as “the last gasp of the Flat Earth Society.”
But on March 22, Viacom, Fox and NBC will file a joint brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in which they argue that the court should do for broadcast networks what it did three weeks ago for cable operators: declare that ownership caps are capricious and unconstitutional dinosaurs.
The networks will argue in their joint court brief that the ownership cap is rooted in anachronistic and unprovable assumptions about the public interest and that the FCC punted last year when, in its congressionally mandated biennial search for outdated of rules, it left the 35 percent ownership cap intact.
ABC is sitting out this D.C. court battle but is known to support the other three networks’ opposition to the ownership caps, even though the reach of the 10 stations it owns is only 24 percent.
The ownership cap is an issue that might not be decided anytime soon. The appeals court proceedings will take months, and there was no indication last week how soon the FCC-whose new Republican Chairman Michael Powell is on record as favoring a lifting of the ownership caps-would respond to the NASA petition.
“You have a situation where both sides still need each other,” said a veteran of network-affiliate skirmishes. “They’re both going to hurt each other as much as they can without blowing each other up.”