Editorial – One more time: Squeezing in spots is wrong

Oct 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

They just never learn. Less than a year after a CBS-owned station in Pittsburgh sparked a big brouhaha by using the so-called Time Machine to compress programming and add local spots, another station, Meredith-owned NBC affiliate WSMV-TV in Nashville, is under investigation in yet another time-tinkering case.
In a similar scenario to the fall 2001 to-do, WSMV got caught relatively easily after it apparently used the machine to speed up network programming. A journalist watching “The West Wing” while on the phone with a relative who was watching the same show in another city happened to notice that the broadcast was progressing at different speeds in the two cities. Subsequent sniffing around by the journalist, Jeremy Heidt, business editor for the Nashville City Paper, turned up evidence that indicates, not surprisingly, the station has also squeezed extra spots into other prime-time NBC shows. NBC launched an investigation into WSMV as soon as it got wind of the incident.
The usual motivation for stations to squeeze broadcasts is to create time for additional local commercials-and thereby pump up profit margins-by compressing network programming or commercials. That stations think they can get away with it defies logic. That they continue to do it-and continue to get caught-is a testament to the blinding power of greed.
Do the decision makers at these stations really think no one will notice? Apparently, they do. “I don’t think people care if the signal comes in perfect,” said Kevin O’Brien, president of broadcasting at Meredith, responding to the NBC investigation. Mr. O’Brien’s follow-up quote is even more telling, exposing the same callousness and the “above the law” mentality that have recently helped erode public confidence in an American business community wracked by high-profile corporate scandals: “People are buying us to a greater degree than they have in the past,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The other stations should have our profit margins.”
In other words, toying with time is just another example of greed trumping fair play, public interest and common sense. Never mind that it’s bound to backfire, as it did a year ago for the CBS stations. Never mind that cheating time really means cheating programmers, advertisers and viewers, that it exacerbates the already troublesome problem of clutter, that it violates the network-affiliate agreement, that it undermines the very credibility of television.
We understand that the business climate in the industry is tough right now, with pressure mounting to dredge up profits wherever they can be found. But squeezing time is not the way to go about it. NBC has done the right thing by launching an investigation into WSMV. We hope the network recognizes the importance of this case and takes its responsibility seriously, including de aling harshly with WSMV if it is found to be guilty of altering network programming.