ABC-Affils Confab a Firm Go

Mar 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

ABC has scheduled its first full-blown affiliates convention in four years for June 9-11 at Disney’s California Adventure amusement park.
It will come at a time affiliates are anything but amused by ABC’s continuing prime-time problems and have questions about who will pay what for the next round of NFL “Monday Night Football.” The meeting comes as ABC is asking affiliates for more commercial and programming real estate while trying to eradicate compensation to stations for carrying network programming.
Despite the serious issues, John Rouse, ABC senior VP affiliate relations, said, “We’re going to try to combine some fun and some business.”
Clearly one of the touchiest issues revolves around football. Expiring at the end of July is the second Network Affiliate Program, the two-year deal under which the stations have kicked in some $34 million per year to help defray the costs of ABC’s $550 million “Monday Night Football” deal.
In return for their contributions, the stations were given seven additional spots in prime time.
The stations’ cash contributions have remained the same, while the value of the spots has been diminished along with the network’s prime-time performance. Affiliates inevitably describe prime time in colorful terms that express disappointment and frustration at having endured yet another sweeps period in which the promised improvements did not materialize.
Stations give points to ABC for resurrecting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in February but say it wasn’t a potent lead-in to late local news.
The network maintains that prime time is the only vexing programming issue, that fall development is the top priority and there are numerous positive stories in other blocks, including news and daytime.
Discussions of NAP III with the ABC Affiliates Association’s board of governors began in December.
Sweeteners, Protections
For networks and affiliates, these sports cost-sharing deals have come to be the package that often includes various sweeteners or protections-from repurposing to retransmission consent-not covered by basic affiliation agreements. Among other items, some affiliates expect ABC to try to nail down the NAP III contract clearances of “NBA Inside Stuff,” a half-hour program that was part of the $4.6 billion, six-year agreement that brought the NBA to ESPN and ABC.
“Stuff,” a year-round program built to appeal to youthful basketball fans, will move from the Saturday kids time to Sunday sports time in September.
Also in September, the network will launch hour-long Saturday and Sunday editions of “Good Morning America.” (ABC News posted a job listing for the weekend “GMA” executive producer position two weeks ago.)
The network said that clearances of weekend “GMA” are running ahead of projection. However, on Saturdays, when the network will take the hour out of kids programming time to accommodate “GMA,” it is easier to schedule “GMA” locally than it will be on Sunday. That’s when it is up to local stations to create the time, at the cost of local news, paid and syndicated programming important to their bottom lines and brands.
Weekday “GMA,” which was started as a cooperative venture in which the network split commercial time equally with affiliates, also has become a source of unease for local stations. They’ve gotten signals that the network was considering a reconfiguration of inventory in “GMA,” perhaps through a swap of local ad time in other programming. A wish of ABC News Senior VP Phyllis McGrady to move 30 seconds of commercial time from the first half-hour, to make the opening block more competitive with NBC’s “Today,” into a later half-hour of “GMA” is said not to be under active discussion. “Today” has 60 seconds more of content time in its first half-hour than “GMA” has.
Many affiliates maintain that much of “GMA’s” strength is due to major commitments made to building strong local news lead-ins.
In the meantime, as long-term affiliation agreements are coming to an end, numerous affiliate sources said the network is aiming for zero compensation to the local stations in the new agreements. In addition, affiliate sources said the agreements do not address some longstanding issues, such as ABC’s desire to have the right to get involved in the sale of affiliated stations it does not own.
Most other networks long ago began aiming to eliminate compensation for affiliates. ABC’s affiliates argue against such a move, because combined with the slump in prime time, where most TV revenue is made, the likelihood that the next NFL deal will cost the network and the local stations more, and the prospect of losing compensation from the network, could mean local stations in effect end up paying to be an affiliate of a network.
ABC’s “MNF” pact expires after the 2005 season, along with all other NFL TV contracts.
If the football discussions drag out too long, the network might find itself negotiating with the NFL to keep “Monday Night Football” without being certain how much of the financial burden would be carried by its affiliates. That would be the third time the network would go hat in hand after the fact to the local stations.
“This could get pretty messy,” said one affiliate executive.