ABC Affils Remain Uneasy

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The ABC Network last week did little but rub salt in the wounds of affiliates that were up in arms over plans to make hit ABC programs available on the next generation of Apple’s iPod.

“The ABC Television Network has long recognized the value of our collaboration with our broadcast affiliates,” the network said in an official statement addressing the issue. “Through our arrangement with Apple, we are not only taking advantage of new technology, but hoping it will bring increased interest to the first-run broadcasts of ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Night Stalker’ on our affiliates, including our owned stations.

“Though the NAP III deal negotiated with our affiliates limits certain program repurposing, there are exceptions to those restrictions. The deal with Apple clearly falls within those exceptions. We hope that time will prove that this deal will increase the awareness of ABC shows and that it will be positive for both the network and the stations.”

NAP III is the Network Affiliate Program agreement hammered out last December, under which the stations agreed to contribute to the cost of “Monday Night Football” in return for seven extra 30-second prime-time spots per week and an assortment of promises that the network would treat the local stations as partners in “mutually beneficial opportunities.”

So far, ABC has not indicated it sees any such opportunity for local stations in the iPod deal.

A number of affiliates were struggling to see how a next-day $1.99 download of “Lost” could benefit ABC’s broadcast the previous night on local stations across the country.

Indeed, the deal that blindsided the affiliates has some local TV executives morosely raising the specter that ABC might try to barter away first-view rights for network programming to iPod and other mobile content players.

“We’re living in this very jumpy world right now,” said an executive at another network, who professed to be “relatively neutral” on the unprecedented Disney-Apple deal because he is not an ABC affiliate.

“I simply don’t believe that small-screen viewing will be cannibalistic to TV viewing,” the executive added.

But ABC affiliates note that the shows can be viewed on computer monitors as well as on the 2-inch iPod screens. “How is that different from a DVR?” the network executive asked.

The general manager of a powerful ABC affiliate said: “We’re always concerned about content going elsewhere.”

An executive with a large station group said, “I am prepared to believe that it just didn’t occur to ABC” that affiliates might have liked a briefing and an opportunity to ask questions raised by the deal before or at least shortly after it was announced. “ABC thought only of itself,” he said. “That’s the offense of it.”

“This is not a game changer,” said another network executive, who added, “At the end of the day, the money is made by selling these devices.”

But that executive said it’s quite possible the deal will be a contract-changer: “Affiliation agreements in the future will have to further define repurposing and hopefully do it in a way that is beneficial to both sides.”

“A large part of this is communication,” the first network executive said. “Some of it might be substantive. Some of it might be hand-holding.”

None of the above was done in this case, station executives said.

Leon Long, the president and general manager of Liberty-owned WLOX-TV in Biloxi, Miss., and the president of the ABC affiliates board of governors, did not return calls seeking comment.