Fox Says Season Win Is Possible

Jan 31, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of the Fox Networks, wasn’t making a rash promise to Fox Broadcasting affiliates gathered in Las Vegas Jan. 23 when he said Fox might finish first this season in the 18 to 49 demographic.

“We think it’s possible we’ll win the season this year. I think it’s going to be very tight,” Mr. Vinciquerra said during a break from the long day of closed-door sessions in Las Vegas on the eve of the National Association of Television Program Executives conference.

Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman declined to react to Mr. Vinciquerra’s cautious optimism. “Gee, I like to be competitive,” she said, adding, “I don’t want to put a hex on it.”

It was clear that the once frosty and wary relationship between the network and its affiliates has thawed noticeably over the past couple of years. The only chill in the air was generated by the extreme air-conditioning blowing into the lunchroom and ballroom adjacent to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center floor, where setup for NATPE was in full swing.

In fact, if there was any tension to be found, it was most likely suffered by those attendees-torn between getting down to business and wanting to watch the NFC and AFC Championship Games.

Affiliates attribute much of the improvement in relations to the presence of Mr. Vinciquerra, a station group veteran, and syndication, marketing and stations veteran Ed Wilson, who left NBC Enterprises in the summer of 2004 to become Fox Television Network president. Both men well know what the network-affiliate relationship looks like from the station side.

The 230-something local station representatives seemed pleased that Fox renewed its NFL deal for six years, but they don’t expect to know until May or June how much of the $712.5 million annual cost the network may ask the local stations to shoulder.

There are some topics on which the network and affiliates do not find unanimity. “We have our issues,” said Northwest Broadcasting President and CEO Brian Brady, who is the new chairman of the Fox affiliates’ board of governors. “I think they are best worked out in private.”

Among the issues said to have come up in Las Vegas are:

  • The continuing struggle to balance postseason baseball and its deep impact on fall prime-time rollout for Fox, which got “The O.C.” off to a healthy preseason start two summers ago but which was unable to duplicate that success against the Athens Olympics on NBC’s broadcast and cable empire last summer.

    The affiliates could see the improved performance that moved Mr. Vinciquerra to raise “a reasonable expectation” of winning the 18 to 49 race: Lead-in “American Idol,” back for two weeks now, more than doubled the viewership for the critically praised “House”; “The O.C.” established a foothold against some powerful competition on Thursdays; and “24” has hit an impressive stride on Mondays.

    The affiliates would like to see consistent prime-time performance throughout the year, especially since having multiple strong nights during the week strengthens the network’s promotional platform.

  • Affiliates, who sometimes feel that Fox does not take their feedback seriously, expressed their discomfort with Fox’s reliance on reality programming. They want more fare with the family-friendly appeal of monster hit “American Idol” and far less of Fox’s trademark edgier fare that creates controversy and invites scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission.

    “There’s always going to be reality programming, but it must be in balance,” Mr. Vinciquerra said.

    The affiliates, to the surprise of no one at Fox, reiterated their hope there will be nothing else along the lines of the recent test of “Who’s Your Daddy?” The show, which was criticized for making a game out of the search for a birth parent and for having overtones of a dating show, failed in the ratings.

  • Station concerns about story lines that push the local-standards envelope. Affiliates in a geographical cross-section of the country have expressed reservations about the teen lesbian plotline that has just begun on “The O.C.”
  • The affiliates also have lingering issues with the prime-time inventory buy-back program. The stations reluctantly agreed in 1999 to collectively buy prime-time spots they previously received for free. Some think of it as reverse compensation that translates into money out of the affiliates’ pockets.

    There also still is a fear among affiliates that Fox, which has the technological capacity to sell regionalized advertising spots, is positioned to poach some advertising revenue that has traditionally gone to local stations.

    Meanwhile, during much of its convention schedule, Fox focused on the business challenges confronting networks and their local affiliates.

    “Everybody knows this stuff. It’s a matter of reminding them. We all get so focused on our businesses every day … that we sometimes don’t think enough about the future. It’s good to have the opportunity to sit in a room and see it all in one place and really be able to focus on it,” Mr. Vinciquerra said.

    There are conversations between network and affiliates about possible uses of the stations’ digital spectrum, but they are mostly laying groundwork, Mr. Vinciquerra said. “We have to get the critical mass of homes that are able to receive the digital signal before we really fully engage.”

    “The big focus in our industry is on how to create new revenue streams for all our groups and the network,” Fox Network Distribution President Bob Quicksilver said. “We’re looking and collaborating on finding new ways to create a revenue model out of the digital spectrum, to monetize station Web sites and to do a better job at the local level in getting a bigger piece of the advertising pie going forward. I don’t think anybody right now has the answer to what the correct model is.”