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Network affiliates plot next move at NAB show

Apr 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The closed doors could not muffle the rounds of applause, whistling and cheers emanating from the Mirage conference room that was packed with top-tier representatives of stations affiliated with ABC, CBS and NBC.
They were there at the invitation of the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, the coalition that had started an industry war by asking the Federal Communications Commission to investigate network practices.
It was billed as an informational meeting. Subjects: the NASA petition, which does not appear to have made any procedural headway at the FCC as well as recent developments in the courts, Congress and regulatory channels on the federal rules that limit the reach of network-owned stations at 35 percent of the country.
The ownership cap, which the networks have asked a federal appeals court to declare unconstitutional and which the National Association of Broadcasters supports, had become such a divisive issue that Fox and CBS had followed NBC’s lead and canceled their NAB memberships and along with ABC had reduced their presence at NAB 2001 in Las Vegas to the most obligatory and ad-hoc basis.
Another casualty of the war of words and filings was the annual affiliates conventions. Only CBS still plans to hold one this summer, but it is trying to unseat the affiliates advisory board, which like the advisory boards of the other networks signed off on the NASA petition.
“Never in our industry have tensions been so high,” said Eddie Fritts, president and CEO of the NAB in his keynote address.
Across town from the convention center, the NBC affiliates board led the annual meeting without representatives of the network, which also had called off the breakfast it had planned with stations’ chief engineers.
The agenda ranged from business-as-usual items (NBC News Channel President Bob Horner briefed the broader affiliate body on the “continuation and modernization” of the contract with the channel in which the affiliates are 50 percent partners) to business-as-it’s-being-done-now items.
There will be a meeting of the affiliates board and NBC Television Network President Randy Falco in New York in mid-May.
“We’re still talking,” said Jack Sander, head of the NBC affiliates’ board and executive vice president of media operations for Belo.
Among the subjects of conversation between Mr. Sander and the network the previous week were May sweeps plans and the XFL.
Also discussed was next February’s Winter Olympics. Relations with stations in the Pacific time zone may be further exacerbated if NBC demands that its coverage of the Salt Lake City Games be carried live, a programming edict that would disrupt local and prime-time programming-in addition to putting the highest-profile events in lower-HUT late-afternoon and access time slots-for the majority of the highly competitive February sweeps.
The network is said to have begun scouting Salt Lake City locations from which “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” would originate during the Games and is considering letting West Coast stations take “Tonight’s” East Coast feed, along with an Olympics highlights program, to fill out prime time.
With NBC Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol on one side of the live-vs.-delayed debate and sales and owned-stations executives said to be on the other, the question is expected to be decided at the top by NBC President and CEO Bob Wright. The network was said to have agreed to poll the West Coast stations one more time, but Mr. Sander said, “If you think it’s just an economic issue, you’d go with delay.”
There also was an explanation of the process that led to the filing of the NASA petition, which has been under discussion by the boards of ABC, CBS and NBC’s affiliate boards-whose members cumulatively represent some 360 stations-for well more than a year.
“There’s hurt feelings. There’s disappointment. And there’s anger,” Mr. Sander said.
Little more than an hour later, after the hourlong NASA meeting at which all of the affiliate-board chairpersons were said to have been among the 15 or so speakers, station executives wouldn’t give specifics when asked who said what to earn the energetic applause that could be heard clearly in the hallway.
“There really was a widespread show of support,” said Alan Frank, one of the architects of the NASA petition to the FCC and president of Post-Newsweek stations.
However, not all the 600-plus affiliates of the Big 3 networks believe the NASA petition represents the best route to resolving issues with the networks.
An NBC spokesman said there had been much positive reaction from local stations to Mr. Falco’s opinion piece in the April 23 Electronic Media, in which he rebutted the key points of the NASA petition and said, “Filing a formal complaint with the government that your business partner is operating in an unlawful manner-especially one with whom you’ve had a long and profitable relationship-exceeds the boundaries of acceptable behavior even among the most dysfunctional families.”
The spokesman said the network had heard from many affiliates who agreed with Mr. Falco’s position and who felt the petition to the FCC has done more harm than good.