Affil Gatherings Low-Key Affairs

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Michele Greppi
Several networks held affiliate meetings last week in conjunction with the upfront presentations in New York, but there was little of the anticipated fireworks. The only significant talk by any networks about the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games-whose TV rights are up for blind bid June 5-was among the Fox network and its affiliate. Other controversial issues, from network compensation to repurposing programming on cable, didn’t ignite any new discussions. Here are reports from the meetings.
If any network’s affiliates had reason to rise up, it appeared to be ABC, but it didn’t happen. Earnest appearances and a preemptive personnel move by ABC News President David Westin lowered the temperatures of affiliates distressed over a pattern of the network’s news division bobbling big events.
The announcement of the 2003-2004 lineup was well received. “It’s a very promotable and logical schedule,” said ABC’s Vice President for Affiliate Relations John Rouse.
The affiliates were briefed on the distribution of revenues from SoapNet, the Disney-owned cable network in which the stations have a financial interest. Sources said the affiliates” share added up to mid-six figures and are projected to triple in the future.
The affiliates also heard plans to convert ABC’s analog distribution system to digital from fall 2004 to fall 2005, and an explanation of how stations will buy and own the equipment. ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau repeatedly called ABC management “the best team assembled since I have been [at] the network.” The morning also featured presentations by key executives including George Bodenheimer, who now oversees ESPN and ABC Sports. He assured them that ABC Sports will maintain a separate identity from ESPN.
Perhaps the only question for which Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun and President Susan Lyne were not prepared involved Alias promo spots that one general manager felt were inappropriate for running in or around Wonderful World of Disney. The executives said they’d check into it and report back.
But the biggest winner may have been Mr. Westin, whose division left affiliates in noncompetitive positions by being last to muster up coverage the day of the shuttle Columbia disaster and on the first night of the bombing of Iraq. Mr. Westin’s shuttle diplomacy-a meeting during affiliates-only time, an appearance with newly promoted deputy Paul Slavin at breakfast the day of the general sessions and then as scheduled later Wednesday-gave a number of affiliates reason to hope that the system really would be fixed this time.
Mr. Slavin, who has been executive producer of World News Tonight since spring of 2000, said he was going to improve the working relationship with affiliates, and will always be up and running when big news breaks.
“I was pleased with David’s reaction and some of the things that he has put in place,” said Deb McDermott, who took over the chairmanship of the affiliates advisory board from Cox Television executive Bruce Baker last week.
The WB
The presence of more than 500 representatives of affiliate stations made last week’s WB affiliates gathering the best-attended ever, said Ken Werner, the executive vice president for affiliate relations at The WB. That swelled attendance at The WB’s upfront party to some 1,000 people, the capacity of The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers, where the hearty partying lasted well into late night. But that afternoon, the agenda was part cheerleading, part goal-setting, part skill-improving.
Reba McEntire, the queen of the WB’s Friday night, handed out the Froggies with which the netlet recognizes affiliate performance in key categories. Emmis-owned WKCF-TV in Orlando snagged three awards and was a finalist in a total of five categories.
WKCF Station Manager Wayne Spracklin accepted the award for being No. 1 in reaching viewers 12 to 34. He and Santa Barbara’s cable-only KWCA, walked off with Froggies for fastest growth in primetime. Recognized as No. 1 in weekend kids” ratings was Betty Ellen Berlamino, general manager of Tribune-owned WPIX-TV in New York. Picking up the Froggie for “brand growth” was Stan Gill, general manager of WBDT-TV, the Dayton station owned by WB founder Jamie Kellner’s Acme Communications. The “something to believe in” Froggie went to Jerry Martin, general manager of Tribune-owned WBDC-TV in Washington, D.C.
But they weren’t the only happy television executives. The WB’s fall 2003-2004 presentation in the morning went over very well. “We were just looking for the best programming,” said Peter Walker, the senior vice president who runs WGN-TV and oversees East Coast and Southern stations for Tribune Broadcasting, which has a 22 percent stake in the WB. He praised the lineup, which includes the return of Angel, a development that pleased Mr. Walker’s counterpart, John Reardon, Tribune’s Western regional VP and general manager for KTLA-TV in Los Angeles.
UPN affiliates board members, who had an “uneventful meeting” before their network’s upfront, came away from the 2003-2004 presentation feeling encouraged, said Dave Hanna, head of the UPN affiliates board.
“It appears the network is on overall track,” said Mr. Hanna. He said board members were heartened to hear about plans for Wednesday (spiffing up Enterprise and bundling it with a new sci-fi hour, Jake 2.0) and for adding more comedies (The Mullets was a big hit). “I think there is a nice strategy in place,” said Mr. Hanna. “They get a very good passing grade on their development effort.”
Peter Schruth, the CBS executive who oversees affiliate relations for both CBS and UPN, said, “We are pretty stoked about it.”
In a discussion Friday about Olympic bidding scenarios, the affiliates advisory board said that while the Olympics is an important prize, they are aware that they would have to help Fox pay for the rights, whether through contribution or loss of commercial inventory, would want to know first: “Is it worth it?”
“Nobody is prepared to say, `I want the trophy at any cost,”’ said John Tupper, the Prime Cities executive who is chairman of Fox’s affiliates board, adding that he isn’t convinced Fox is the kind of network that would reap long-term financial benefits from having a noncontinuing event such as the Olympics.
Fox pledged to get back to the affiliates once it knows what its Olympics strategy is but did not promise to give the affiliates a vote on what the network does.
Peter Chernin, the COO of Fox parent News Corp., dropped in to share his view of the business and to thank the affiliates for their support.
Mr. Tupper said the affiliates seem to like the programming on the 2003-04 lineup Thursday. “I thought the meeting was pretty good,” said Fox Networks Group President Tony Vinciquerra.