Guest Commentary: Hear message of affiliates

Apr 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A few weeks ago, the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, of which I am chairman, filed a petition asking that the Federal Communications Commission examine various network practices. Four sets of reactions-by stations, networks, government officials and the press-provide insights into the substantive issues raised by the filing.
First: Large numbers of stations affiliated with all four of the big networks have related to us story after story of network overreaching that jeopardizes the vitality of local service. They also expressed fears about going public with these stories because of the possibility of retaliation.
So these stations all breathed a sigh of relief when NASA stepped forward on behalf of the affiliates’ united interests. The petition gives tangible expression to the unrest among these broadcasters, who grew up professionally believing in localism but now find themselves unable to implement that principle because of network dominance.
Second: The networks have reacted with angry surprise. Taking these two reactions together, one is struck by how removed the networks are from the perspectives of their local affiliates. The genius of the American broadcasting system, which through the petition NASA seeks to preserve and extend into the new digital environment, is that it combines the different strengths and perspectives of local stations and national networks in a relationship of relative equilibrium. The open dialogue that should be promoted by such a relationship clearly does not now exist.
NASA hopes that the petition will reinvigorate the exchange of views between grass-roots broadcasters and the network decision-makers in New York and Hollywood that has been stifled by the one-sided relationship that has developed over the last several years.
Third: The reaction of those on the Hill and in the FCC, particularly those familiar with broadcast issues, was that the petition was overdue. The feeling was that the network/affiliate imbalance has become exacerbated over time, that network seizure of power over programming and other important station decisions has gotten out of hand, that the rules of the road that had been designed long ago to curb such practices need to be invoked. The networks may be insensitive to the existence and significance of this reaction as well.
Fourth: There has been an interesting split between coverage in the trade press and coverage in the general press. Articles in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the New York Post reported on the substance of the concerns described in the petition. The coverage portrayed these issues for what they are-problems that concretely affect American viewers day in and day out.
In contrast, the trade press treated the petition as a political matter. Headlines in the trade press talked of “war between the affiliates and the networks,” and the articles themselves speculated about the role of the National Association of Broadcasters and engaged in conjecture about the relationship between the Hill and the FCC.
The trade articles also characterized the petition as going in the teeth of a deregulatory commission, not appreciating, apparently, the difference between debating changes in the law and seeking enforcement of laws already on the books.
NASA has made clear that it believes in the strength of the network/affiliate relationship and that its petition is not a declaration of war on the networks. It has made clear that because these issues are between affiliates and networks, NASA was the appropriate vehicle, in the first instance, to lay the facts before the FCC for its consideration.
We have also made clear that while Congress has an abiding interest in the issues raised by the petition, it is for the FCC, which oversees the application of the Communications Act and the rules, to make the initial determination about the issues raised in the petition. Broadcasting and the affiliate relationship can and should emerge from this fray stronger and better able to serve the public. But to get to this point, these issues need to be confronted and resolved, not ducked.