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Keeping an eye on the Buffalo affiliate

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

As the licensee of WIVB-TV in Buffalo, N.Y., the longest-running CBS affiliate not owned by Viacom, LIN TV is happy to congratulate the network on its 75th anniversary.
From its early days and under its current management, CBS has been a class act, providing blue-chip programming to the American people and a strong partner for WIVB.
The rich history of WIVB and its relationship with CBS provides some valuable insights into what the future may hold for our partnership. WIVB, which started life as WBEN-TV, signed on May 14, 1948, with a regular evening schedule of two hours of programming, including a ventriloquist and-deja vu all over again-a live local telecast of professional wrestling.
For the next five years, WBEN was the only station on the air in Buffalo. Its programming could best be described as “local, local, local.” In fact, the call letters of the station, as was common back then, indicated the local nature of TV. The BEN in WBEN stood for the local station owner, which was the local newspaper, the Buffalo Evening News.
In addition to the news and local sports, the station aired everything from a local cooking show to its own locally produced mystery show, “The Clue,” which launched the careers of Broderick Crawford and Lorne Greene, among others. (Before we wax too nostalgic about the good old days, let us not forget that the station also broke new ground with what I am sure was the first, and probably the last, live telecast of prostate surgery at Millard Fillmore Hospital.)
As the only show in town, WBEN, like other early TV stations, could cherrypick individual programs from all the then-existing networks (including “Howdy Doody” with Buffalo’s own Buffalo Bob Smith). And we always showed, of course, a number of CBS shows. Later, with other Buffalo stations signing on the air, the station finally had to pick a single network partner. On Nov 1, 1953, it became a CBS affiliate, airing “Gunsmoke,” “The Honeymooners,” “Jack Benny” and, of course, the “CBS Evening News” and the legendary Fred Friendly/Edward R. Murrow collaboration “See It Now.”
The fortunes of CBS and the station have been deeply intertwined ever since. Although both the network and the station started at the pinnacle, there have been periods since when each has fallen from grace. I am happy to report, however, that things have rarely been better than they are today: CBS once again is winning the prime-time household war-thank you, Mr. Moonves-and, thanks in large part to the rebuilding program LIN initiated when we bought the station [five] years ago, every one of WIVB’s local newscasts was No. 1 in the last book, quite a feat considering that the station now carries 43 newscasts every week.
Though we both may again be No. 1, we cannot pretend that nothing has changed since 1953. We are not blind to the inroads made by our multichannel competitors, the continuing fragmentation of the television audience and the impending threats presented by interactive technologies. Nor are we blind to the fact that competitive pressures have exacerbated the historic tensions in the network-affiliate relationship over division of dayparts and programming costs and the new-world tension over “repurposing.”
It seems idle to deny that the intensity of today’s video marketplace makes the inefficiencies inherent in the network-affiliate relationship less tolerable. We simply have to find ways to improve the quality and pace of our joint decision-making process.
But there cannot be any doubt that the synergies of the network-affiliate relationship are in some ways more valuable than ever. With the proliferation of programming options, quality branding is crucial and both of our brands bring great value. It is for this reason that we are excited that we will broaden our relationship with Viacom by affiliating WNLO with UPN next year.
As a company with affiliates of all six networks, I can say with certainty that network performance still has a great impact on station performance in local time periods. Yet the quality of our local programming, and particularly local news, still is indispensable to network success. Without the broadcast platform, there would be no launch pad for syndicated programming and precious little content for the networks’ cable distributors.
Which brings me to the digital transition. This is a historic journey, fraught with both danger and promise. The enormous capital outlay, the uncertainty of the technical performance and the tumult of massive channel changes make the digital conversion an intimidating prospect. But the potential payoff is also great: a substantially larger and more flexible “bitstream” than we have today, more and better for everybody.
In any event, both affiliates and networks must recognize that we are embarking on this historic journey not alone but together. It is time, past time really, to get serious about redefining the network-affiliate relationship in the digital world. CBS has led the way with HD programming and has done an unusually good job of keeping open the lines of communication with its affiliates. It is time to use that leadership and good will to undertake the tough but rewarding job of setting the agenda for the future.
Gary Chapman is president and CEO of LIN TV Corp.