NBC investigating WSMV-TV

Oct 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

WSMV-TV in Nashville, owned by Meredith Corp., is under investigation by NBC for allegedly using a Time Machine to add commercial inventory during prime time.
A Time Machine can eliminate duplicative frames in a TV signal’s picture so commercials can be added. Use of the devices at local TV stations to “shrink” national programs or national commercials to add extra local commercials is a violation of most network affiliation agreements.
“In `West Wing’ it’s crystal clear they have an extra 30 seconds,” John Damiano, NBC’s executive VP of affiliate relations, told the Nashville City Paper last week. “I’m pretty convinced that if they’ve done it once, they’ve done it more,” Mr. Damiano told the paper. “I’ve ordered 28 days of tapes of [WSMV broadcasts] from a Nashville copying service.”
Sources have told Electronic Media that all 11 Meredith stations either have Time Machines or will have them. Meredith has five CBS affiliates, four Fox affiliates, one UPN affiliate and one NBC affiliate.
When asked by the City Paper what actions the network might bring against Meredith, Mr. Damiano said it “would take a while to know,” and added, “We’re talking to lawyers now.”
Reached by Electronic Media, Mr. Damiano would only say, “They have been one of our top affiliates for a long time. We are confident we will come to closure soon.”
However, one source said that Meredith anticipated it might be caught and that after a period of not using the Time Machine it might be fired up again.
A defiant Kevin O’Brien, president of Meredith’s broadcasting division, told the City Paper, “NBC can launch all the investigations they want. Do you want a medal? What’s the point? No reaction, no comment.”
In an earlier interview with the paper, also last week, Mr. O’Brien said, “Who cares about technology or Time Machines? I don’t think people care if the signal comes in perfect. People are buying us to a greater degree than they have in the past. The other stations should have our profit margins.”
Mr. O’Brien was said to be travelling and in meetings late last week and did not return repeated phone calls.
Last year a major brouhaha developed over use of a Time Machine at a Pittsburgh station. A sportswriter for a newspaper in Pittsburgh was listening to a Steelers football game on the radio and happened to turn on his TV to catch the action. He noticed that the action being described on the radio didn’t match up with what was being shown by KDKA-TV, a CBS owned-and-operated station. It turned out that KDKA was using a Time Machine to squeeze in extra local commercials.
Subsequently, a series of investigations by Electronic Media revealed that a number of other stations owned by various groups were allegedly using Time Machines.
Similar to what happened in Pittsburgh, WSMV’s use of the Time Machine was discovered by a local reporter by accident. City Paper reporter Jeremy Heidt routinely watches “The West Wing” while on the phone with another fan of the show, his mother, who lives in Toledo, Ohio, which, like Nashville, is in the Eastern time zone. It was while watching the two-hour season premiere of the show with his mother on the other line that Mr. Heidt noticed a big delay on WSMV when the program came back from an early commercial break.
Mr. Heidt claimed that WSMV added two minutes of local time to the “West Wing” premiere. By comparing WSMV’s prime-time broadcasts with NBC broadcasts in Toledo, Detroit, Atlanta and Huntsville, Ala., Mr. Heidt said he was able to find WSMV also adding spots in other NBC prime-time programming such as “Friends,” “ER” and “Ed.”
Mr. Heidt said that WSMV was using the Time Machine to shorten the length of NBC programming and the national commercials accompanying the programming.
When the issue of the Time Machines was brought out in the open last year, the American Association of Advertising Agencies decried their use and asked the networks to get commitments from their affiliates not to use the devices.
“It’s all about money,” said Chuck Bachrach, executive VP, director of media resources and programming for ad agency Rubin Postaer & Associates in Santa Monica, Calif. “That’s the bottom line, and that’s what these stations care about. But it harms my clients because the viewer is not getting the full time my clients have bought to sell their products. Plus, it adds terribly to an already terrible clutter problem. I would hope that the networks and stations realize the harm this is doing.”
When asked about the allegations, WSMV’s General Manager Steve Ramsey said, “We don’t comment on those issues.” Other Meredith general managers declined comment about whether the machine was in use at their stations. “We don’t comment on station operations to anyone,” said Kirk Black, general manager at Meredith’s CBS affiliate KCTV in Kansas City, Mo.
Elden Hale, who joined Meredith’s CBS affiliate WFSB-TV in Hartford just last week, as VP and general manager said he did not know if the machine was being used at his station. “I’ve only been here four days. I couldn’t tell you whether we have one or not,” he said last Thursday.
The use of the Time Machine at WSMV appears to have begun in the past few months. The technology was not in place at the station as recently as July, according to a source familiar with the station. The machines were also not used at other Meredith-owned stations such as KCTV and KPDX-TV (Fox) in Portland, Ore., earlier this year, according to sources familiar with those stations.
Still, cropping “West Wing” and other NBC prime-time shows is not the first time WSMV has used technology to alter its programming. The station relied on a device in the early to mid-90s known as a Lexicon, a collection of 3/4-inch machines that could be used to compress programming content to insert additional commercials. The practice was commonly used on the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and other King World properties, said a former staffer. “We would take it and shorten the show and insert another minute worth of ads,” said the source. WSMV became a Meredith station in 1995.
The other Meredith TV stations and their affiliations are: WGCL-TV, CBS, in Atlanta; KPHO-TV, CBS, in Phoenix; KPTV, UPN, in Portland, Ore.; WHNS-TV, Fox, in Greenville, S.C.-Asheville, N.C.; KVVU-TV, Fox, in Las Vegas; WNEM-TV, Flint-Saginaw, Mich.; and KFXO-TV, Fox, in Bend, Ore.