All not well between ABC, affils

Feb 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Members of the ABC affiliate advisory board were peeved on the morning of Jan. 24.
They had been notified the night before that ABC did not plan to discuss any of the issues-among them the NFL agreement that expires this summer-the affiliates had, at the request and convenience of the network, schlepped west to discuss.
One insider said a suggestion that the NFL agreement be extended for a year, perhaps with a few network-friendly add-ons-an idea conceived at the very top of the Disney-owned network-had been floated to members of the advisory board by ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau. There were no takers.
“Instead of discussing all these broad issues, it was, `Let’s just delay issues,”’ said one person who was in the room at the affiliates board meeting in Los Angeles and who flatly declared the turn of events “an appalling lack of respect for other people and the process.”
Not everyone who was present for the series of advisory board meetings-including one with network execs-put it that strongly. But everyone agreed that by the end of the final meeting, affiliates were feeling much better than they were at the beginning.
Contributing to the antacid effect: the chance to tell newly installed Entertainment President Susan Lyne up close and personal what a drag the prime-time lineup is on station performance-particularly the shows that lead into late local newscasts. It was also a chance to vent frustrations over issues that have gone unresolved for more than a year because of either canceled, delayed or unproductive meetings.
A network-affiliate board meeting is being scheduled for sometime in March or April in New York, and the NFL agreement is one of the pressing issues that will be on the agenda. At least one high-level network executive expects significant headway to be made on the agreement, which uses a complex formula to decide how much each station, gives back to the network to defray the cost of “Monday Night Football,” depending on such factors as the size of the market and the level of competition in it.
Everything in the current agreement is subject to discussion, both sides agree. And there are signals from ABC that the network understands that stations in smaller markets face special challenges that must be taken into account in any discussions of compensation or the loss of it.
Other ongoing issues include the repurposing of network programming on such outlets as the ABC Family Channel, the Disney Channel and ESPN, and the specificity with which ABC may promote the off-network airdates; how much power ABC should have over the sale of affiliate stations; and other issues enumerated when the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance asked the Federal Communications Commission last year to investigate some business practices of the major networks.
Mr. Wallau, whose long, close relationship with Disney President Bob Iger has contributed to a perception that Mr. Wallau is, to use one affiliate’s description, a “spokesperson” for management instead of someone who has the power to negotiate and sell a deal, took some heat from affiliates during and after the January meeting, at which he was the ranking network executive until the arrival of ABC President Steve Bornstein.
“There were some strong comments made back and forth,” one affiliate representative said. “Because Alex was the point man, he had to take the brunt.”
There is dispute about whether some of the affiliates gathered in Burbank, Calif., agreed that in the future the board would or should decline to meet “unless Steve were present.”
Mr. Bornstein, best known for growing ESPN into a profitable empire, is regarded as a deft and tough negotiator skilled at convincing both sides they won. He may, however, have devoted too much time to his presentation on the recently acquired Family Channel, whose content is his responsibility, for the comfort of some affiliates to whom the cable channel is both a competitor and a business that can distract Mr. Bornstein from the bigger questions confronting ABC.
“The board consists of some pretty strong characters,” one of the members said, adding that it only makes sense to “encourage” Mr. Bornstein to be present, since he outranks Mr. Wallau and “You always want the top guy there.”
Bruce Baker, the Cox Broadcasting executive who is head of the ABC affiliate group, was dismayed that any details of the gathering in Burbank had seeped out.
“These are very complex issues-and issues that have to be thought through and explored and frankly debated,” Mr. Baker said. “It’s not an easy process. It’s not always a fun process. And it’s certainly not always a pretty process, but it’s one that often is necessary.”
“We have many difficult issues facing us,” said John Rouse, ABC’s senior VP of affiliate relations. “That can always cause expressive dialogue, but we believe that can be very healthy. We are continuing to talk.”
Mr. Rouse also said he believes the “quality time” the affiliates were able to spend with Ms. Lyne was “a very positive thing.”