How congenial was the 49th annual CBS Affiliates Convention in Las Vegas last week?
The two-day gathering at the Bellagio Hotel wrapped with a closed session in which affiliates asked network executives only two or three questions, none of them harsh and none about the perennially third-place The Early Show. And none of them tugged on the tail of the elephant in the room: news from the Federal Communications Commission on whether it will lift the ownership cap, allow triopolies in some major markets and allow companies to own stations and newspapers in the same market.
Instead, said a mellow Mel Karmazin, the hard-driving president and chief operating officer of CBS parent Viacom, no matter what the FCC decides, it is important for the network and affiliates to find “new and different ways” to work together.
“For heaven’s sake, put this behind you as soon as you can,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a satellite chat with Carol Melton, Viacom’s senior VP for government affairs, earlier in the day. “The enemy is on the outside of your room,” he said to the network-affiliate assemblage, referring to broadcasters’ competitors.
Regarding the FCC rules review, Rep Tauzin said, “Everybody is just doing what they’ve been told to do.”
He also noted that broadcasting is the only industry subject to the mandate of Congress, and he praised the networks and stations for moving forward on digital conversion, to be completed in 2006. If other industries essential to making the switch from analog don’t get with the program, “we’re going to push ’em,” said Rep. Tauzin. He said that more cable outlets in each market would be the broadcasters’ best tool when negotiating retransmission rights.
The affiliates listened attentively. Overall, they liked what they were hearing. They said they were pleased that Leslie Moonves made good on his promise of last year to improve their late local news lead-ins; they like the look of the 2003-04 lineup (Two and a Half Men and Joan of Arcadia were among the new shows that earned positive reviews), and they liked the fact that CBS is first focused on total viewers (winning that race for the season with an easy margin over NBC) and on improving demos.
“This is not a geriatric network,” said Cox Broadcasting President Andy Fisher, who said networks that target only younger demos deprive stations of 25-54 viewers, which are “the lifeblood of local stations.”
No sooner had he said that last season’s growth in viewers and 25 to 54 and 18 to 49 demos gave CBS a season with “no asterisks or footnotes or parentheses. They just are better,” than Mr. Karmazin walked by, pointed his finger at Mr. Fisher and said: “No asterisks.”
“The dialogue has been good,” said Bob Lee, the chairman of the affiliate board and general manager of Schurz Communications-owned WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va.
“The relationship with the network is healthy,” said Bill Moll, president of Clear Channel Television.
In a closed board meeting and closed affiliates session, the station executives agreed to begin negotiations on an issue that had gone nowhere since last year, when the network proposed that affiliates pick up some of the cost of its license fee for the NCAA men’s basketball championship to the tune of $26 million to $28 million a year.
The expectation is that the deal could be wrapped up in six to eight weeks.
The affiliates are just looking for “some exchange of value,” said Mr. Lee.
Given that they also help pay for CBS’s NFL programming, they were happy to hear CBS Sports President Sean McManus talk about “financial restraint” with regard to sports in general and the Olympics in particular.
Mr. Fisher said there have been too many “excessive bids” for sports franchises that “bite affiliates in the butt when things go sour.”
“Bragging rights do not drop to the bottom line,” said Alan Bell, making an unexpected appearance at the convention since he moved up from president of Freedom Broadcasting to run its parent company.
Mr. Karmazin said that whatever Mr. McManus wants to do when the sealed bids for the U.S. media rights to Olympic Games of Winter 2010 and Summer 2012 are submitted at the end of this week, “He knows he has my vote.”
There was some bragging about things that do accrue to the bottom line.
Mr. Karmazin said the record $9.3 billion upfront bodes well for the economy, and the overall performance of Viacom in a slow-growth economy bodes well for CBS (and other Viacom TV properties), and that “just has to trickle down” to the local level.
In his speech, a refined version of his recent upfront presentation, Mr. Moonves said the just-concluded season proves “the future is here” and he promised the affiliates more growth at 10 p.m. next year. “We are on an amazing roll,” he said.