ABC punts to affils on `Monday Night’

Sep 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When ABC had trouble selling all of its “Monday Night Football” commercial inventory to advertisers, it decided to remove some spots from its national inventory by selling them to its affiliates.
The pitch: The affiliates can get three extra 30-second commercial spots per game and then split the additional revenue 50-50 with the network under the Football Participation Program, or FPP.
The catch: Affiliates would have to commit to this arrangement for a minimum of nine of the 17 regular-season games and the Jan. 5 playoff doubleheader and would owe the network
that additional split even on spots they couldn’t sell.
While an ABC/ESPN sales executive said that some “Monday Night Football” games are approaching sell-out and more advertising has been sold at this point than a year ago-thanks to the network’s football package having been included in ABC’s prime-time upfront this year and thanks to multiyear, multimedia deals already in place-the FPP is a result of the down market.
With inventory going slowly, if not at significant discount, throughout the country, some stations feel they cannot afford to gamble on the network’s FPP.
“Why run the risk of paying for spots you can’t sell?” said one executive of a group that includes a handful of ABC affiliates. “We’re not willing to pay the network for inventory we can’t sell.”
He is among the station-group executives who might reconsider if ABC put some flexibility into its proposal, which bases the revenue expectations on the average cost of local spots within the game.
“I think in some of our markets we’d like to do it if we could be flexible on the number of games,” said Dennis Williamson, senior vice president of Texas television stations for Belo, which has four ABC affiliates.
“We were looking for creative ways to [work to the] advantage [of] the affiliates and the network,” said John Rouse, ABC’s senior vice president for affiliate relations. “We are taking an upfront stance on this.”
The stations have until Oct. 22 to opt in.
“It’s on a completely voluntary basis,” Mr. Rouse said. “Some sort of network material” will fill spots not claimed by affiliates, he said.
“We’ve got healthy participation,” he said. “The majority of the coverage from the affiliates is already joined.”
The plan is inherently more appealing to stations in or near markets that are home to NFL teams.
KGTV-TV in San Diego, home of the Chargers, plans to participate, said Darrell Brown, vice president and programming director for the McGraw-Hill Broadcasting station. “At this point, we’re taking all the games.”
Sister stations WRTV-TV in Indianapolis (the Colts) and KMGH-TV in Denver (the Broncos) also are taking the three additional spots. KERO-TV, the McGraw-Hill station in Bakersfield, Calif., is not.
KIVI-TV in Boise, Idaho, is hundreds of miles from the nearest NFL field, but General Manager David Harbert is taking the extra “MNF” spots. He has not sold out all his spots in all the games, but he’s confident he will. “This is premiere programming, and certainly if we don’t feel confident selling `Monday Night Football’ we’re in the wrong business. This is appointment television.”
Appointment television, especially on nights dominated by live sports and awards events, gets complicated in the Mountain time zone, where prime time starts at 7 p.m. and there’s only a half-hour of access time on stations with newscasts. Plus, it’s largely a rural populace, which tends to be early to bed so it can be early to rise. (That adds up to less than 5 percent of the U.S. TV universe.)
The presence of special editions of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on ABC’s Monday lineup has further complicated things between the network, which wants to maximize “Millionaire’s” exposure and timeliness, and some stations that expected to have more of a choice in where to run the “Millionaire” edition that is bumped out of prime time by “MNF.” The game starts at 7 p.m. in the Mountain time zone and invariably delays the 10 o’clock local newscasts, which are then generally followed by “Nightline” and “Politically Incorrect.”
In the past, stations have had options on where to run the make-good Monday prime-time programs as long as they didn’t pre-empt other network programming and ran the shows within the week in which the network scheduled them.
Starting Sept. 10, the network has told stations, they must run the special editions of “Millionaire” on Monday night.
Mr. Rouse said some stations are being allowed to run “Millionaire” after “Politically Incorrect,” but the majority will squeeze “Millionaire” between late local newscasts and “Nightline.”
“`Millionaire’ is one of the best shows ABC has, and it’s a throwaway for us,”’ said one Mountain programming executive, who would have preferred the option to find a time slot with a higher HUT level to maximize the game show’s appeal.
“There’s a real timeliness issue,” Mr. Rouse said. “We’re just trying to accommodate the viewer.”
“This lineup is fine with me, and hopefully it will create flow and sampling for our news,” said Mr. Harbert at KIVI.
In Denver, KMGH Programming VP Pauline Revera also believes that having “Millionaire” as a lead-out “will help our local news.” Ms. Revera doesn’t think “Millionaire” is buried in that slot.
However, another Mountain time zone affiliate noted that last November the Monday-night HUT levels dropped from 50 at 10 p.m. to 7 at 11:30 p.m., which is an optimistic start time for “Millionaire” on football nights.
Still, said that affiliate, the situation is better than in 1998, when ABC moved “MNF” to 8 p.m. (ET), a start time that encroached on an hour of local ad-revenue time for the Mountain stations. “When it started earlier, we didn’t have any access at all.”
“Monday is a real aberration for us in the fourth quarter,” Mr. Rouse said.
Of the Football Participation Plan, Mr. Baker said, he hasn’t heard stations “clamoring” to take so significant a risk.
Tony Vinciquerra, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Hearst-Argyle Television, said about half the group’s 12 ABC affiliates are “seriously considering” the plan, and half are not.
Of some additional concern to Mr. Vinciquerra in this down market is that “whenever you add inventory, you drive prices down.”
Like some other group executives, Mr. Vinciquerra said that if the network indicated it was willing to negotiate on some of the FPP terms, more Hearst-Argyle stations might be willing to gamble on the additional spots.
But Mr. Vinciquerra thinks he has an even better idea. “I suggested they take the inventory out of the games [to] make the games more interesting. There’s too much clutter.”
“I think the network is going to rethink it,” said one group executive. “The only question is whether they’re going to rethink it in time.”