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Smooth Sailing for ABC Execs, Affils

Jun 24, 2007  •  Post A Comment

ABC-affiliated stations got to know and love the local advertising possibilities of ABC’s new online video player during a four-day Caribbean cruise aboard the Disney Wonder, the first dedicated convention for the network’s affiliates in several years.

The cruise, attended by some 100 affiliate executives who brought along about 200 family members, also generated enthusiasm for a network-station co-branding strategy known as ABC Start Here. That initiative, which will place uniform icons and navigational guides across company sites, spurred conversations along with a proposed network-station news collaboration.

The station executives got to mingle with ABC heavyweights including Disney Media Networks Co-Chair and Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney; Disney-ABC Television Group Daytime President Brian Frons; Mike Benson, executive VP of marketing, advertising and promotion, ABC Entertainment; and ABC News President David Westin.

Good feelings between the network and affiliates on the cruise, which sailed June 7, were fostered by ABC’s ratings performance. Relations frayed two years ago over digital deals, including the 2005 pact that put ABC shows on the iTunes download store.

The long-discussed network-affiliate collaboration on news has evolved into a broadband and direct-to-cable program service, according to executives who attended the convention. Earlier visions of the project were to have carved it out of local stations’ digital spectrum for distribution.

The collaboration, a pet project of Mr. Westin’s, has made significant progress in recent weeks, said Ray Cole, who is general manager of WOI-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, as well as president and chief executive of Citadel Communications Co.

“We look to bring closure to those discussions in a matter of weeks,” Mr. Cole said.

Mr. Cole was elected to a second one-year term as chairman of the board of governors of the ABC affiliates association.

Mr. Benson walked the local TV executives through the ins and outs of the second incarnation of ABC’s Emmy-winning video player, which will roll out this fall. The new player can deliver geographically targeted advertising to Web users, which has the potential to boost the number of local ad views for which local stations will be credited.

Another advantage of the upgraded HD-quality player is that it will eliminate the need for a separate player for broadband news viewing.

There also was discussion, mostly in private sessions, of the January 2008 video-on-demand test ABC and Cox Cable have scheduled in Orange County, Calif. Mr. Cole said there was a mutual pledge to look for ways in which the affiliates can participate financially in whatever might develop from the test.

The ABC Start Here branding initiative is more important than ever in an era of expanding platforms—from local stations’ sites to sports Web pages—so viewers know what they can expect to get through ABC outlets and where to get it, said John Rouse, senior VP of affiliate relations for ABC.

Mr. Rouse and Mr. Cole expressed enthusiasm about the quality and quantity of the network-affiliate dialogue in between such events as “Dancing With the Stars” lessons, an afternoon on a Disney-run island and the origination of the Saturday edition of “Good Morning America” from the ship and the island.

It doesn’t hurt the network-affiliate relationship—which Mr. Cole said has improved significantly in the last year—that ABC during the May sweeps delivered the biggest late local lead-ins to stations among adults 25 to 54 years old (up 23 percent year over year). In the adults 18 to 49 demographic, lead-in ratings rose26 percent. The raft of programs returning to familiar spots at 10 p.m. on most nights is also fostering good relations.

“The affiliates were very positive, not only about the strength of the shows, but also about how aggressive we were about development,” Mr. Rouse said.

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