ABC, affils have gap to bridge

Jun 10, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A month before their first national get-together in more than a year, ABC and its affiliates seem as far apart as they’ve ever been.
The network’s bruising 2001-02 season exacerbated tensions on both sides on some new issues and some old ones. Among the newer points of contention, the network wants the affiliates to give up another half-hour in late-night to accommodate an hour-long show starring comedian Jimmy Kimmel. High on the list of long-running conflicts is the network’s desire to cut the compensation it pays to local stations.
The Kimmel deal, wrapped up just as ABC was to present its fall lineup to Madison Avenue, caught affiliates by surprise. Most of them contacted by Electronic Media last week seemed hesitant to give up a choice half-hour in which they get all the revenue to gamble on a program they know little about.
ABC is preparing a tape about the Kimmel show and plans to begin meeting with affiliates this month.
“We recognize the second half is not going to clear right away,” said ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau. He said the network will try to work with stations that have contracts for other shows in that second half-hour (12:05 to 12:35 a.m.), just as it did to raise in-pattern clearances for “Nightline,” “The View” and “Politically Incorrect,” which is being replaced by the Kimmel show.
Mr. Wallau said the Kimmel negotiations will not be “one size fits all,” but instead will be done “group by group, station by station.”
“It’s a process we do all the time,” said Mr. Wallau, who thinks advertisers’ and critics’ enthusiasm for Mr. Kimmel, who knocked ’em dead by baiting network executives and icons at the upfront in May, will help sway affiliates. “It’s a normal process in our relationship.”
Acrimony and antipathy seem to have become par for the relationship between ABC and its affiliates, many of whom who will meet in private and open sessions on July 10 at the O’Hare Westin in Chicago.
In a letter obtained by EM, Bruce Baker, chairman of the board of governors of the ABC Television Affiliates Association, last week told fellow station executives: “The Board continues to be concerned about relations between ABC and its affiliates. The relationship has been complicated, among other things, by the hard stance ABC has taken with affiliates on renewal of the affiliation agreement, by ABC’s misuse of the station transfer and assignment process for the purpose of renegotiating the economics of existing affiliation agreements, by ABC’s declining program performance, and by ABC’s publicly announced plans to repurpose a significant portion of the network schedule on the ABC Family Channel.
“The differences that divide us have delayed our efforts to exploit new business opportunities together, including … the development of new and creative uses of the digital bit stream. These differences have also impaired ABC’s progress in reaching a new agreement with affiliates for `Monday Night Football.”’
July 31 is the expiration date on the three-year agreement under which the affiliates paid $45 million a year (in the form of reduced compensation) to help defray the costs of ABC’s six-year, $1 billion deal for “Monday Night Football.” The network agreed to give the stations eight additional prime-time ad spots per week (spots whose value dropped along with the collapse of ABC’s prime-time lineup).
Some affiliates expressed fear that if the negotiations drag on past the end of July, they will, as they have in the past, face the loss of inventory in big events such as the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl, which ABC will broadcast in January.
At ABC, where the feeling is that the affiliates are trying to gain leverage by negotiating in the press about a rough patch in the relationship, the word is that while there is room to negotiate, nothing will get in the way of “fixing the business model.” Among the affiliates, the question is whether that means there’s a deadlock ahead.
“There’s a whole range of ways in which we can help each other,” said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting. “And there’s a whole range of ways in which we can make nuisances of each other.”