CBS meeting subdued despite year’s success

Unlike last year’s disastrous affiliate meeting at which CBS brass introduced the idea of cutting back compensation money, this year’s meeting was expected to be a love fest.

Not only is the network coming off a first-place finish in the 1992-93 prime time Nielsens, but it managed to snag David Letterman away from NBC in a much-publicized tug of war.

But while affiliates were in an upbeat mood, the atmosphere was surprisingly restrained.

“I didn’t see any glee, any ecstasy,” said Janeen Bjork, VP and director of programming for Seltel, a rep firm with a number of CBS affiliates as clients.

Rep firm and network sources cited a weak May sweeps performance, uncertainty about the fall sked and talk of CBS’ strategy on retransmission consent as reasons for the subdued meeting.

According to Pat Servodidio, an executive with the Multimedia station group, the conference was somewhat muted because “the network didn’t do well in the Nielsens during the May sweeps, and stations rely on these numbers to set their ad rates for the next six months.”

And although CBS brass bragged about luring Letterman away from NBC for its 11:35 p.m. timeslot, “most general managers of CBS stations are not a part of the demo that Letterman rocks and rolls in. There’s a real cultural gap here,” said Jim Curtin, VP and director of programming for HRP rep firm. That is causing many general manager’s to refuse to carry Letterman live.

These naysayers will delay Letterman at least until midnight in order to strip sitcom reruns that get good ratings in the local market and that funnel all of the ad dollars to the stations. CBS will pocket about half of the ad dollars from Letterman.

In addition, the new crop of prime time series for 1993-94, said Bjork, “did not provoke wild enthusiasm. Most of the new shows were so incredibly safe that the affiliates came away with the feeling ‘We’ve seen it all before.’ ”

Bruce Marson, general manager of WHDH, the CBS affiliate in Boston, said the pending retransmission consent deadline also put a slight damper on the proceedings.

The CBS O&Os recently decided to opt for retrans-consent money rather than must-carry on June 17, the date set by the Cable Act of 1992 for TV stations to file their intentions with the Federal Communications Commission. By invoking must-carry, stations would waive their right to pocket any cash from cable operators for the next three years.

“The cable industry is heavily concentrated in a small number of companies, and they all seem to be taking a rigid no-pay policy,” said Jay Kriegel, senior VP of CBS Inc. and the network’s point man on retransmission consent, at a news briefing during the second day of the affiliate meeting.

Kriegel said CBS might undertake a “legal analysis” if negotiations with the top MSOs over the next four months fail to bring forth a retransmission agreement that would funnel dollars to the CBS O&Os in exchange for the stations’ agreeing to allow cable systems to retransmit theirsignals.

CBS’ assumption would be that the MSOs are acting in concert, “like monopolists in the marketplace,” as Kriegel puts it.

The more conciliatory voice at the news briefing was that of Johnathan Rodgers, president of the CBS TV stations division, who said, “I foresee a successful end to our negotiations” with cable operators. Although Rodgers stressed that the network can’t speak for its affiliates in the retrans-consent matter, he said the affils “applauded” during the meeting at which CBS told them it would go after cash for its O&Os.

While at the briefing Kriegel said CBS “is not interested in creating another new cable network,” he said afterward that he wouldn’t rule it out, to give TCI the illusion it’s not paying for retrans.

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