These are tense times for the networks and their affiliate stations. The affiliates have called for a federal probe into allegations that the networks are abusing local stations, while the networks-CBS and ABC, specifically-have threatened to quit the National Association of Broadcasters if it supports an investigation into those charges.
NBC and Fox have already quit the NAB over its stand on the station ownership cap, another bone of contention between nets and affiliates.
The latest salvo in this increasingly nasty war of words came last week in a memo from CBS to its affiliates practically demanding that they dismantle their 17-member advisory board. The board represents the affiliates in their dealings with the network.
Clearly, CBS has decided to play hardball. The network prides itself on what it traditionally considers to be the best affiliate relationship among the major networks, and it apparently got its feelings hurt by the recent emergence of a defiant streak among its member stations. Its overture against the advisory board sounds like little more than a petty act of revenge.
The gesture seriously undermines CBS’s credibility, all but proving the stations’ claims of bullying by the network. And it may have broader implications. It sends the disturbing signal that the big networks, apparently feeling even more powerful than usual in the current economic and political climate, think they have the upper hand and would sooner use force than try to smooth things over with the stations.
Indeed, the affiliates, especially in smaller markets, are on less than equal footing with the networks these days. For one thing, they’re dependent on network compensation, which in some cases is a station’s top revenue source. And they say they’re being forced by the networks to agree to unpleasant terms, such as signing over digital spectrum rights. Fox has been especially aggressive in pursuing such agreements.
The affiliates are pleading for help from the government and from the NAB in their fight with the networks. The CBS move signals the stations may have a legitimate need for such help.
The networks and affiliates already have enough friction. CBS could do itself and its stations a favor by rethinking its wrongheaded tactic and working instead toward living up to its reputation of getting along with its affiliates.