CBS time squeeze scandal widens

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Yet another CBS owned-and-operated station, WBZ-TV in Boston, has been accused of using digital processing to add extra local commercials in prime time.
Furthermore, it appears that at least one other station group, with mostly non-CBS affiliates-Granite Broadcasting-has also been using the technology to add extra local commercials.
As knowledge of these practices has become more widespread, a number of affiliates and Hollywood studio executives are becoming increasingly upset.
Moreover, evidence is mounting that CBS-owned stations have been monkeying with the digital processing of network programming-using a device called the Time Machine-for a long time; that CBS-owned stations had been given permission to add as much as 30 seconds of local commercial inventory per hour of prime time; that CBS yanked the leash on affiliates who tried to do the
same thing; and that when the scope of the practice became public recently, the order went out from the topmost levels of CBS to the O&Os to stop using the Time Machine.
After comparing tapes of WBZ’s Nov. 1 and 2 prime-time lineups with a CBS affiliate in another market, it appears that WBZ added 60 seconds of commercial time during “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and a 30-second spot during “That’s Life.”
The accusations were made by Paul La Camera, president and general manager of rival Boston station WCVB-TV, an ABC affiliate owned by Hearst-Argyle Television. They were first reported last week in the Boston Herald.
In response, WBZ spokeswoman Michele Walsh told the paper, “We don’t feel it’s necessary to comment on this.” But when she was contacted later by Electronic Media, her comment was, “Both claims are inaccurate. Beyond that, we decline to comment.”
Mr. La Camera was nonplussed by Ms. Walsh’s denial. “I don’t know what that means,” he said. After comparing the two tapes, he said, “What was quite apparent is that there was additional commercial material in the 9:30 breaks” on WBZ.
As first reported by EM last week, some executives with knowledge of the history of Time Machine usage by stations recall that CBS executives, including network President Leslie Moonves, first became aware of the potential of the Time Machine when the company purchased KEYE-TV in Austin, Texas, in 1999, and let use of the device continue after the company took over the station.
When KEYE was sold to CBS by Granite, use of the Time Machine to add extra local commercials was bringing in up to $2 million annually, some sources said.
Double standard
Previously, Granite had evaluated potential revenue the Time Machine could produce in various dayparts and then purchased several for its stations, including KEYE and WTVH-TV, the CBS affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y, according to executives familiar with Granite.
Even though CBS officials allegedly allowed KEYE to continue using the Time Machine after CBS purchased the station, CBS then ordered WTVH to stop using its Time Machine on network programming, according to an executive close to Granite.
Granite Chief Operating Officer Robert E. Selwyn has tried to stamp out use of the Time Machine at the group’s stations-most of which are affiliates of various networks-but some stations have continued to create additional commercial time, according to knowledgeable executives. Last week, these sources said, the recent spate of publicity about the Time Machine moved Mr. Selwyn to issue a stronger order to stop using the devices.
Mr. Selwyn’s assistant said he “doesn’t usually talk,” and referred EM to Chief Executive Officer W. Don Cornwell. A spokesman for Granite said Mr. Cornwell was traveling and “can’t be reached for comment.”
However, executives close to Granite insist most top executives inside the station group knew how extensively the Time Machine was being used.
Meanwhile, questions continue about who knew which CBS-owned stations were using the Time Machines, when they knew it, how they acted on it, and who issued the early November internal edict banning the use of Time Machines to create extra commercial time.
Only the latter question can be answered clearly. Mr. Moonves, according to multiple sources connected to the CBS Station Group, issued the cease-and-desist edict. It went to general managers of the CBS-owned stations straight from the network president, perhaps to make perfectly clear that it was an order, not a suggestion.
A former network executive familiar with the CBS Station Group said that Roger King, the legendary chairman of syndication powerhouse King World Productions, and now of CBS Enterprises as well, had previously asked that the network-owned stations be told not to use Time Machines to add local inventory to syndicated programming.
What did Mel know?
A spokesman for CBS Enterprises, noting that Mr. King was traveling and thus unavailable, said, “We’re not going to comment on what he may or may not have said in an internal meeting.”
Some executives familiar with the station group insist that Mel Karmazin, president and chief operating officer of CBS parent company Viacom, had to know much, if not all, that was going on. There is a story in limited circulation about what’s known in the CBS Station Group as “Mel’s Money.” The CBS-owned stations get credit for spots sold in package deals such as Viacom Plus and then wait to be told how to report the credit-and where they report it tends to change from quarter to quarter.
What does seem to be clear is that CBS has been preventing other affiliates from using Time Machines while its own stations have used them. Besides telling Granite’s WTVH to stop using the device, CBS caught another affiliate, in the Midwest, using the device during a live NFL game a few years ago.
The day after the game, a CBS affiliate relations executive told the station, “You can’t do that. Don’t do it anymore,” according to a former executive at the station. “And so we didn’t,” this executive said.
What brought current use of Time Machines at the CBS-owned stations to light was another football game. As previously reported, KDKA, the CBS-owned station in Pittsburgh, conceded it used a Time Machine during a Pittsburgh Steelers football game on Oct. 25, allowing the station to add an extra commercial during the “live” telecast (EM, Nov. 5).
Across the country, competitors in markets where there are CBS-owned stations say they’ve been concerned about identifiable practices (starting “Late Show With David Letterman” two minutes late, giving a CBS O&O valuable time to sell at 10:35 p.m. in the Central time zone) and patterns more difficult to pinpoint (Taylor Nelson Sofres CMR data showing CBS-owned stations with disproportionate shares of market revenue).
A CBS spokesman declined to comment for this story.
In Hollywood, news of use of the Time Machine is not welcome. The device, made by Prime Image in San Jose, Calif., works by digitally processing a TV signal, analyzing two succeeding “frames,” and if they are substantially alike, discarding one. On its Web site, Prime Image says stations are allowed to do this “because the Time Machine does not alter program content. The Time Machine only removes redundant information.”
Legitimate uses
Licensing agreements give networks the right to edit for broadcast standards and to edit for length if a show is turned in longer than the prescribed time. “If we deliver at length, they don’t have the right to edit purely for the purpose of commercial time,” said a source at a major studio, who wasn’t sure whether what the CBS-owned stations have been doing is a violation of contract, copyright or a combination of both.
And there’s something else that rankles those in Hollywood: the idea of a machine tossing out frames because it deems them extraneous and thus potentially affecting the creative content.
“Some dramatic pauses are incredibly powerful,” said the studio source.
Among most local broadcasters, there are points of consensus, among them that CBS has been hypocritical for letting its owned stations play by different rules than it laid down for affili
ates, and that if one is going to break the rules, it will be hard to stay below the radar.
“You can’t hide that stuff,” said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting, which owns five CBS affiliates. “It’s like using salt and pepper and chili sauce and mustard. You don’t do it with a heavy hand.”
At KUSA-TV, the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate in Denver, where the approach has been to consolidate airbreaks and reduce clutter, Vice President and General Manager Roger Ogden said that while he has long been aware of the technology that made room for more commercial time, “It’s just not the way we like to conduct business.