CBS, affils to gather amid tensions

May 28, 2001  •  Post A Comment

There’s a lot of talk about “family” and “relationships”-and even a little talk about prospects for “catharsis”-as CBS gets ready to do what no other network is doing in this year of extreme contentiousness: host an old-fashioned summer affiliates convention.
The agenda for May 30 and 31 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas is, as usual, given over mostly to sessions in which the network will crow about its achievements in the year past and tout its prospects for the season ahead and offer up some stars and surprises.
What everyone is most interested in, of course, is what will go on in the closed-door sessions.
Chief among the items to be addressed May 30 by the affiliates, whose turnout is expected to be reduced somewhat by economy-driven travel cutbacks, is the structure of the group’s advisory board.
In March, when tempers were still flaring over the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance petition to the Federal Communications Commission to investigate a range of network practices and the lack of warning from affiliate bodies, CBS had declared, “It is no longer possible for us to work effectively with the current affiliate advisory board.”
Last week, Peter Schruth, president of affiliate relations for CBS Television, submitted an “informal proposal” for the 200-plus affiliates to reformulate the board and suggestions about how the affiliates might “enhance communication” with the network.
However, he conceded, “It is their board. It is not our board. We cannot arbitrarily or arrogantly say, `Well, you know, let’s change your board.’ But what we have said is that we would like you to re-examine the possibility of reformulating it.”
While 17 board members are elected by fellow affiliates to three-year terms, the inclusion of past board chairmen means the network sometimes is dealing with as many as 40 affiliates in meetings and negotiations.
“I’d be surprised if there were a change,” said Ray Deaver, chairman of the affiliate board and general manager of KWTX-TV in Waco, Texas.
“We will accept whatever they say,” Mr. Schruth said.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if feelings haven’t cooled, if passions haven’t abated,” said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting, which owns five CBS affiliates and three ABC affiliates. “The reality is that like all families there are feuds and spats, but you can’t get rid of your family. They really can’t get rid of us, and we can’t get rid of them.”
Like Mr. Deaver and Mr. Schruth, Mr. Bell predicts the convention will be productive, and the biggest surprise may be how well everyone gets along after three months of heated private exchanges, public coolness and counterfilings.
Still, while Mr. Bell was quick to acknowledge that CBS has earned its affiliates’ appreciation for “a very good season” in which the network loosened NBC’s grip on Thursday night, improved its 18 to 49 performance and won the total viewership crown.
He also said that when the station and network representatives hold their traditional closed-door question-and-answer session, some less cut-and-dried topics will be raised, including digital distribution opportunities.
“And we have to focus on improving those areas that they haven’t done well in, which are just as much heartache for them as they are for us,” he said.
“The Early Show,” which continues to struggle in between flights of “Survivor,” is one of those causes of heartache, Mr. Bell said, joking that the story is so obvious that when industry reporters hit the “M” key, “It writes, `Mired in last place.”’
More seriously, he said, the morning-show question “isn’t easy. It isn’t easy for ABC, either, by the way. … There may not be room for look-alike products anymore.”