It’s Prime Time For Syndie-Affil Alliance

Growing hostility between the Big Three networks and their affiliated stations has opened a breach that could lead to more primetime preemptions.

As a result, tv distributors have altered their sales pitches for some new weekly tv series to take advantage of the rift.

“Relations between networks and affiliates, especially at NBC and CBS, where there have been compensation cuts in the last year, are more strained than ever before,” says Ray Johns, exec v.p., Seltel rep firm. “It’s almost a secessionary environment. You’re going to see massive preemptions of network programming. There’s a serious window of opportunity for syndicators here.”

Network preemptions already are on the rise. NBC recently admitted that for the first half of the 1990-91 season, preemption of primetime shows was running 50% higher than last season. A lot of CBS affiliates are planning to increase their preemption levels to make up for revenue short-falls from the Tiffany web’s recent 20% cut in network compensation.

The syndicators of firstrun shows at NATPE trying to exploit this new adversarial relationship for fall ’91 are: LBS Communications, with “Baywatch”; Cannell Distribution, with “Street Justice”; MTM Syndication, with “WKRP”; Worldvision Enterprises, with “Tarzan”; and MCA TV, with its three hour shows, “Shades Of L.A.,” “She-Wolf Of London” and “Street Justice.”

These syndicators are frank about their intentions: “We’re going after network affiliate preemptions in primetime,” says Tony Intelisano, exec v.p., marketing, for LBS.

“Affiliates that are losing compensation money from their networks have only one way to make up those dollars – by preempting their network,” says Shelly Schwab, president of MCA TV. Schwab adds, in fact, that when MCA takes its shows into a market, the affiliates bring up the subject of primetime preemption before his salesmen do.

Even in an all-barter primetime situation, when the stations have to give up half a show’s commercial time to the syndicator, continues Schwab, stations still end up with more than triple the amount of spots to sell locally than they would if they loyally ran the program fed to them by the network.

The problem for MCA, however, is that it has geared its whole marketing plan to indies looking for primetime shows to replace the powerhouse theatrical films now bypassing syndication for basic-cable networks like USA.

MCA’s goal is to sell all three shows to one station in a market under the umbrella title “Hollywood Prime Network,” which would serve as a regular showcase for future weekly hourlong series in firstrun syndication. This makes it difficult for MCA to change its strategy for network affiliate primetime.

Another show, MTM’s “WKRP,” is being double-run by many affiliates on the weekend. (“WKRP” is a continuation of the decade-old ABC sitcom “WKRP In Cincinnati.”) The first play is in prime access and the second in fringe, says Kevin Tannehill, head of syndication sales for MTM Distribution.

MTM is now, however, incorporating in its marketing plan a new proposal for primetime replacement.

“Stations in the 1990s have only one choice and that’s to look at the bottom line,” says LBS Communications supremo Henry Siegel. “And one way to increase their revenues is create additional advertising inventory by prempting the network.”

The company’s two-hour special, “Amelia Earhart: The Untold Story,” originally was targeted for independents, but now Siegel says he expects it will preempt a lot of network fare.

Affiliate primetime is not the only place that syndicators smell an opportunity. Ratings for CBS latenight fare consistently are lackluster. And ABC’s post-“Nightline” offering, “Into The Night Starring Rick Dees,” is an underachiever. NBC’s poor performing daytime sked may also be a syndicator target.

“Why should I stick with something like ‘Santa Barbara’ that I’m lucky if it does a 9 share?” says an NBC affil general manager.

Another source notes that “something like ‘Jenny Jones’ starts to look real good. [Or] I could get a bargain on a new gameshow. Put it in there and even if it doesn’t do a better number, you still have more inventory to sell.”

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