CW Execs Set Affiliate Terms

Feb 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Executives of The CW gathered last week in Burbank to work out details of the process by which stations throughout the country must compete for affiliation with the new network.

Those CW reps are expected to send letters out this week informing stations about the procedure, according to a source close to The CW.

“We’ll be opening the first markets in a couple of weeks, if not sooner,” the source said.

But conversations last week with station group executives currently in The WB and/or UPN folds suggested that securing requisite carriage of The CW lineups may not be as easy for The CW as it first appeared.

For one, Fox is weeks away from starting “an alternative national program service,” according to a memo to the Fox stations obtained by TelevisionWeek.

For that and other reasons, executives of the stations facing disaffiliation throughout the country insist they have not been waiting like sorority-girl wannabes by the telephone for The CW to call and invite them to participate in the rush process.

Instead of biting their nails or twiddling their thumbs, the local executives have been crunching their stations’ numbers and exploring their programming and competitive realities and options-only one of which is The CW, many say. Stations also have been ordering their lawyers to brush up on their respective affiliate agreements in case litigation is required to resolve issues that linger after The CW lays out its business model.

The stations’ programming options appear to have expanded with the revelation last week that Fox Television Stations is weeks away from announcing the launch of an “alternative national program service” this fall.

In a memo dated Feb. 8, Fox Television Stations President Jack Abernethy told the general managers of nine Fox-owned UPN affiliates that will lose their affiliations with the launch of The CW this fall that the Fox stations group’s alternative programming concept will be “station-friendly.”

“We are talking to the best syndicators and production people from around the world who are excited about producing first-run strip shows and bringing fresh and new ideas to broadcast prime time. We are looking at production models and show concepts that are consistent with the digital challenges we face rather than the $2 million an episode model which hasn’t worked after ten years,” Mr. Abernethy’s memo said.

Although station execs’ skeptical sentiments about CW deal points provoke the suggestion, even the presumption, that they are trying to jump-start negotiations through the press, the affiliate executives’ reservations do go to key components of The CW’s business model. A spokesman for The CW declined to comment.

The CW model assumes that the network will get widespread reverse compensation. That means stations, some of which have received millions of dollars a year to carry network programming, instead will pay the network for the right to broadcast the lineups. The lineups include prime time, which will incorporate the best of both networks’ programs but keep The WB’s more aggressive six-night, 13-hour prime-time format.

“If the deal’s too harsh, I’ll walk,” said an executive at one group with long ties to The WB.

Strong admiration is apparent among station executives for the track record of CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, who has declared that The CW will do from day one what The WB and UPN never did: make money.

However, affiliates note that they are once again being asked to bet on a promise that previously didn’t come true. The WB and UPN never “turned into Fox,” said an executive with one group that has both UPN and WB affiliates.

The CW programming elements are “really established brands,” said a source close to The CW. “I don’t think any network has ever been launched with these advantages.”

The CW’s mandatory clearance of a 3-5 p.m. weekday programming block in which The CW will share in the revenue could be a bit of a jolt for current UPN affiliates. Those stations have been required to clear only 10 hours per week of UPN programming, all of it prime time.

“You’re not going to find any broadcasters doing backflips over that afternoon block. It presents fundamental problems to operators in each market, because we make money there. I put cash shows out there so I can control my inventory,” said one executive of a group that owns multiple UPN-affiliated stations. “You’re not only taking away inventory, but you’re replacing shows that probably are working with shows that probably are not going to work.”

The WB launched its adult-oriented afternoon block in January that includes “ER” repeats.

One executive of a group with multiple WB affiliates already had made up his mind to walk away from The WB if he could not get out from under the afternoon block.

“I’m starting now from the presumption of going indie,” he said.

Stations are also scrutinizing the mandatory clearance of a five-hour Saturday morning kidvid block that in many cases will displace paid programming. Children’s programming is a business many broadcasters had gotten out of as the strength of kid-centric cable networks sucked much of the audience and revenue away from network and local broadcasting.

“We’ve never really been in the business of selling kids,” said the executive with multiple UPN affiliates, who nonetheless allows that the Kids WB! lineup, which has topped the broadcast category for 16 consecutive sweeps periods, could open up new business to his stations.

In addition, many of the stations affected by the formation of The CW-depending on their current netlet affiliation-are faced with either unexpected overload or shortage of syndicated programming and contractual commitments that may not fit with new needs and timeframes.

They don’t know whether they can expect any consideration with such questions, either by phasing in some of the CW requirements or by other mechanisms.

To be sure, station executives are eager to hear any further information available about The CW. The information vacuum that has existed since The CW announcement the week of the National Association of Television Program Executives convention last month has had executives frustrated in recent weeks.

“Information has been nonexistent,” said the executive with multiple UPN-affiliated stations.

By most accounts, September is coming up desperately fast, given the Herculean and even Byzantine task of cutting new affiliation agreements in the 52 percent of the country not accounted for by the Tribune and CBS-owned stations. This must be done while juggling sometimes overlapping relationships with numerous station groups without whom The CW is unlikely to thrive.

“They’ve got to pick the best TV stations, not low-power stations or glorified, souped-up digital platforms and the promise of building something five years from now,” said the executive.

“They can’t just go into these markets and make cable deals and make this network work,” he said, referring to the WB 100+ Station Group’s strategy of covering non-affiliated markets with cable signals. “They cannot afford to take bad [distribution] deals.”

“In some of our markets,” said the executive with long ties to The WB and a strong aversion to reverse comp, “they still don’t have anyplace to go but us.”

To which a source close to The CW replied: “This is truly the last chance to affiliate with a broadcast network.”