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Albuquerque stations tangle

Sep 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In the middle of the networks’ scramble to cover unfolding events after the terrorist attacks in New York, no one expected that CBS’s sharing of its national news feed with its Viacom-owned sister network, UPN, would rankle anyone’s feathers. The goodwill public service gesture, nevertheless, ignited a local and corporate squabble between CBS and UPN affiliates in Albuquerque, N.M., the 50th-largest market in the country.
On the day of the attacks, the coordinated decision to pick up CBS News’ nonstop feed on UPN affiliate KASY-TV had officials at CBS affiliate KRQE-TV seething over what the station viewed as a “violation of exclusive [affiliation] broadcast agreements.”
It was one of few examples of conflicting corporate agendas colliding during a day in which the networks and local stations were exhibiting a true spirit of cooperation in often sharing pooled video coverage of the national tragedy.
Originally, UPN stations were informed by the network via phone and e-mail on the morning of Sept. 11 that they could pick up CBS News’ satellite coverage beginning at 3:30 p.m. (local Mountain time). KASY pre-empted its entertainment programming until midnight to take Dan Rather’s nonstop chronicling of events. But KRQE, which is down one notch on the dial from KASY’s Channel 12 position on cable systems in the market, was incensed by the co-opting of the CBS news feed.
That same day, KASY’s vice president and general manager, John Greenwood, received a letter from KRQE’s attorney, Martin Esquivel of Dines, Gross & Esquivel, P.C., with the “demand to cease and desist from running CBS coverage.” The letter, suggesting that Mr. Greenwood’s “cavalier decision” to run the broadcast could result in “serious legal consequences,” charged that KASY’s repurposing of the CBS feed amounted to “violation of exclusive broadcast agreements between CBS and KRQE as well as running afoul of copyright laws.”
“First, I got a call from Bill Anderson [KRQE’s general manager], asking, `What the hell are you doing running CBS programming here?”’ Mr. Greenwood said. “All I could do was to remind him that our networks are owned by the same parent company [Viacom] and that it was a decision from a greater power than I.”
But at that point, according to Mr. Greenwood, KRQE threatened to use other forms of leverage to make sure KASY desisted from any further carriage of the CBS feed. As it turns out, KASY, an Acme Broadcasting station that is owned as part of a duopoly with WB Network affiliate KWBQ-TV, leases space on KRQE’s transmitter and antenna.
“That first call [from Mr. Anderson] was followed by a call from KRQE’s operations manager, who said he would pull us off the air if [we] kept on airing the CBS signal,” Mr. Greenwood said. “Shortly after that I received the cease-and-desist order from their attorney, so it was apparent they were pretty angry and ready to take any measure necessary. Since we are not a news station, my only point to them was that we were only doing this as a public-interest obligation and something that CBS and UPN presented as a goodwill gesture to our station.”
The local dust-up in Albuquerque could prove embarrassing for corporate station owners at Emmis Broadcasting and Acme Television. Emmis, chaired and partially owned by Jeff Smulyan, owns stations in 14 other markets in addition to KRQE in Albuquerque. Acme, an operator of five stations, including KWBQ and KASY, is owned by Jamie Kellner, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System.
Mr. Anderson, who declined to comment on whether the operations manager did threaten to yank KASY’s signal, said KRQE is no longer “pursuing the matter” with the UPN station. Instead, Mr. Anderson charged that his station was not “properly informed in advance” by CBS’s affiliate relations department of the decision to offer UPN carriage of the news feeds.
“The matter is not entirely dropped,” Mr. Anderson said. “We are still trying to get a handle on CBS’s thought process here and what they felt about offering our exclusive and copyrighted news content to a competing station in the market. We would never deprive our community of a news voice in the market, especially in a matter of such national importance. But in this case, CBS trampled over our rights to exclusivity and right to first consent.”
A CBS spokesman said it was a mandated Viacom “corporate decision,” carried out by CBS News President Andrew Heyward and CBS Affiliate Relations President Peter Schruth, to share the news feed with UPN stations and the MTV Networks Group (MTV, VH1) to spread coverage to as many media outlets as possible.
Steve Carlston, executive vice president of affiliate relations at UPN, said the network began informing affiliates at 11 a.m. (PT) that Viacom and CBS executive brass had signed off on offering CBS’s national feed.
“Too much is being made out of a molehill, in light of the other horrendous events this country is facing currently,” Mr. Carlston said. “We are not a news network, and we have a smaller-than-average number of affiliates with newscasts, but we saw this as a public responsibility-not for any strategic or financial gains.
“We are grateful to [Viacom Chairman and CEO] Mel Karmazin, Andy Heyward, [CBS Network Television President] Leslie Moonves, Peter Schruth and the CBS News staff for offering us an opportunity to do a public service in a time of national crisis. … for seeing the severity of the situation and making what was not an easy economic decision.”