Networks say affiliates abuse pre-emptions

Jul 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Despite all the affiliate talk about the importance of the right to pre-empt network programming to the survival of the nation’s independent local stations, actual pre-emptions are often spurred more by financial considerations than lofty First Amendment goals.
At least that’s the analysis The Walt Disney Co. offered at the Federal Communications Commission last week in an effort to persuade the agency to put the kibosh on an affiliate request for an FCC investigation into alleged network abuses of their station partners.
In a controversial petition early this year, the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance urged the probe in part to discourage the networks’ practice of using affiliation contracts to limit an affiliate’s right to bump network shows.
But in its filing last week, Disney said some of the leading proponents of pre-emption rights-including Post-Newsweek Stations, which is headed by NASA Chairman Alan Frank-bump network shows, at least at times, for blatantly mercenary reasons.
“A local station’s clearance decision often has little to do with the abstract notions of the public interest and everything to do with money,” Disney said in its FCC filing.
“For example, Post-Newsweek Stations’ WPLG-TV in Miami refuses to broadcast ABC’s Saturday-morning educational show `Doug’ and instead broadcasts such programs as an infomercial on hair restoration,” Disney said.
“Sinclair’s station WEAR-TV in Pensacola, Fla., declines to air ABC’s `World News Tonight’ on Sunday evenings so that it can air `Hollywood Squares’ instead,” Disney continued. “And Hearst-Argyle’s KMBC-TV in Kansas City, Mo., delays `Nightline’ 90 minutes [from 10:30 p.m. to midnight] in favor of the syndicated programs `Seinfeld,’ `Cheers’ and `Entertainment Tonight.”’
“Such programming decisions might make abundant short-term economic sense from the perspective of an isolated affiliate, but … they can do great damage to the network-affiliate joint venture as a whole by reducing the chances of the affected programs to attract audiences and earn advertising revenues,” Disney said.
“NASA ignores all of those concerns,” Disney continued. “In its view, the network-affiliate relationship is essentially one-way: The network offers the affiliate `first-call’ [the right of first refusal] on all its programs, but the affiliate then has no obligation to accept any of those programs. That is not a business model that could ever have survived, and it is not a business model that could possibly sustain free, advertiser-supporter television in today’s world.”
In response, Post-Newsweek’s Mr. Frank said WPLG carries its fair share of educational programming for children-and a locally produced Saturday morning news show.
“We continue to believe that the network-affiliate rules are critical to the basic principles of localism and licensee control,” Mr. Frank said.
In a series of filings, Disney and the other Big 4 networks told the FCC that other affiliate allegations of abuse were without merit.
But Mr. Frank said the differences in opinion over what the FCC’s rules say really makes the case for the agency to step in and clarify the situation.
“That’s why we need a declaratory ruling,” Mr. Frank said.
In a July 16 letter to the FCC, Robert Iger, Disney president and chief operating officer, also blasted the affiliate assertion that relaxing the national cap on TV station ownership would undermine local programming.
Indeed, Mr. Iger insisted that ABC’s 10 owned-and-operated TV stations produce and broadcast as much or more local programming than most non-network affiliates-including stations owned by Cox Broadcasting, Post-Newsweek and Belo-which the ABC chief identified as leaders of the affiliate group lobbying to keep the caps in place. “The true measure of localism in broadcasting is not who owns the station but how committed that station owner is to the local community,” Mr. Iger said.