Celebrating a partnership

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Representing NBC’s oldest non-owned affiliate, WDIV-TV, Detroit, I want to congratulate NBC on its first 75 years of excellence in broadcasting. Ever since its momentous first radio broadcast on Nov. 15, 1926, from the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, NBC has been a gutsy innovator in both programming and distribution.
The NBC affiliates, working with NBC in a partnership as old as the network itself, have played an important role in its growth and success. Like our federal system of government, the network-affiliate relationship recognizes that we Americans are simultaneously one and many. The “one” is represented by a national program service that has broad nationwide appeal, while the “many” is expressed through local distribution and local control of broadcast stations that reflect and preserve local diversity.
NBC’s strength has always been rooted in the strength of the local stations-NBC does better in markets where the local stations are stronger, such as in Detroit, where WDIV dominates in news and prime time. Likewise, the local stations benefit tremendously from a strong and successful network.
The network has given the public the opportunity to see jewels like “Meet the Press,” “Friends,” “ER” and “The West Wing,” which are supported by nationwide advertising. And the stations have in turn actually delivered that programming to every television set in nearly every home, have framed it with local programming and local news and have provided local businesses with advertising opportunities that enrich the community.
Recent tragic events highlight the importance of having both a national and local presence in the station’s community. Whereas the cable networks generally provide national perspectives on the war against terrorism, the NBC affiliates in partnership with the network are able to cover the news from Washington while at the same time addressing real threats and related false alarms just down the street.
Over the past 75 years, the relationship between the network and its affiliates has had its ups and downs. Most regard the 1970s and 1980s as the high-water mark of the relationship, when the network and the local stations working together not only made NBC No. 1 but also ushered broadcast television through profound technological changes. In this golden age of network-affiliate cooperation, the relationship was constructive and supportive. It was generally recognized that the affiliates helped NBC become pre-eminent, and the network believed it was important to preserve the fabric of its affiliate relationships.
NBC and the affiliates partnered to develop and spread satellite news-gathering technology, for example, by putting in place a series of satellites and news trucks at stations around the country. This cooperative effort enabled affiliates to serve the demands of their communities and provide the network with instant access to breaking news stories from anywhere in the country-from hurricanes to school shootings to the latest threat of biological terrorism.
The fruit of this news-gathering collaboration became what is now the standard for a news cooperative, the NewsChannel, run by NBC and its affiliates. The news gathered by all NBC-owned and -affiliated stations is available to be distributed instantaneously to any participating station that needs it, providing the public with comprehensive national and local coverage.
Although state-of-the-art technology makes this possible, it is the cooperation of the NBC network, its news department and the local stations that makes it work.
But those times were different. There was less competition, and the business was clearly not as fragmented as it is today. Perhaps these new pressures helped to add tensions to the network-affiliate relationship. Those tensions today are no secret.
The most serious conflict started to develop in the mid-’90s around the network’s desire to spread the costs of its content over multiple platforms, including its cable channels (referred to as “repurposing”) and the subsequent efforts to eliminate network compensation to affiliates for the carriage of NBC programming. The affiliates have worked to accommodate the network’s desire to amortize spiraling programming costs more broadly, including their efforts in support of the repeal of the fin-syn act.
At the same time, the affiliates have tried to impress upon the network that local stations are not passive distributors of network programming but are essential contributors to the network’s brand and well-being. Affiliates provide the network with an unparalleled distribution platform that reaches from large cities such as Detroit and Boston to the nation’s smallest market, Glendive, Mont. Affiliates also support the branding of the network by building an audience on the backs of local programming and community outreach and by promoting the network’s prime-time schedule throughout the day. In the end, it is in the interest of NBC and its affiliates to recognize the contributions each makes to their partnership, and to reach the compromises necessary to enhance the value of that partnership for both members.
Mr. Frank is president and CEO, Post-Newsweek Stations, whose WDIV-TV, Detroit, is the oldest independently owned affiliate of the NBC network.