Changing channels

TELL ALL THOSE CHICKEN LITTLES out there they can stop yelling: The day they’ve been speaking about has finally arrived, and the sky is falling on the old-fashioned system of network television.

Buoyed by the success of Fox Broadcasting Co. and Paramount Domestic TV, the major studios, in what they characterize as a defensive move, are circumventing the Big Three webs by establishing their own ad-hoc syndication networks and, wherever possible, courting affiliates to dump network fare to make space for them.

The move is defensive, studios maintain, because the networks can now produce up to 40% of their own schedules. With greater relaxation of the financial interest and syndication rules a possibility, the webs could eventually be free to have an even greater role in supplying their own programming. All three webs have already stepped up activity in this area — ominously, in the eyes of the studios.

The networks, meanwhile, faced with declining market shares, have sought to cut the compensation they pay to affiliates, only to discover that the concept of stations acting out of loyalty and habit died long ago, during the days of the run-of-the-mill 30 share.

That no-win network scenario–declining shares and profits on one end, tears in the fabric that provides their national reach and strength on the other–was apparent at last week’s National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention. Once viewed as a used-car lot for stocking up the hours around network programming, this time the networks themselves were on hand in force, seeking programming and coddling stations just as syndicators do.

NBC sought to wow its affiliates with new programming announcements while going shopping for daytime and even prime time shows. Affiliate relations departments gave their “be true to your school” pitch, and even Fox felt obliged to remind its stations that a fledgling “network” survives on clearances, not love alone.

Late night, driven by its high-profile personalities, has been the primary battle ground. Fox sought to sell its stations on “The Chevy Chase Show,” while CBS is making its case for David Letterman. ABC turned last year’s annual affiliate meeting into a push to upgrade clearances for “Nightline,” while stations are still cozy with syndicated fare that frequently looks more flattering to a profit-driven manager’s bottom line.

The war, however, has clearly spilled over into prime time, where the vulnerability of the networks was underscored by reports that two CBS affiliates (owned by the same company) in Seattle and Salt Lake City are preempting the freshman drama “Picket Fences” because they object to the show’s content–in a sense, functioning as master programmers imposing their standards on both viewers and the network.

NONE OF THIS BODES PARTICULARLY WELL for the third party that both sides claim they best represent in the television equation: the independent producer, or rather, the stand-alone entrepreneur.

Networks and studios will still need people to produce programs, but not to own and distribute them. While the networks have expressed a willingness to back such suppliers in order to generate programming–and free themselves from total dependence on the studios–creative boutiques remain leery of the webs or studios allowing them to share fully in revenues over the long haul.

In short, the network-affiliate relationship is being stretched near its breaking point, as the various ad-hoc networks whittle away at network franchises. Concepts like brokering time to suppliers, though roundly dismissed by the networks themselves, could eventually become a defensive strategy to get some money back in time periods where network reach is limited.

Some say this is a good thing–that the best programming should make it on the air, and that competition will prompt the networks to be better programmers. They’ve survived the advent of Fox, and they’ll survive this new challenge.

Still, undermining the existing system creates a world of uncertainty, and one that might not necessarily benefit even the studios. While ratings for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues” have been impressive, they’re still not “Roseanne,””Home Improvement” or “Murphy Brown”-type numbers. Thus far, only a network can create a hit of that magnitude–with the after-market in syndication, although diminished, still representing a colossal payoff.

There are clearly short-term benefits to prime time syndicators, who are lining up to reap those rewards. If the ultimate result cripples the Big Three networks, however, is it possible that everybody loses?

LOVE SHAQ: Super Bowl XXVII wasn’t notable for much after half-time, except, of course, the commercials.

The topper in that category was as one-sided as the game, with honors going to Reebok for its spot featuring rookie Orlando Magic center Shaquille O’Neal barging into the club of the NBA’s legendary big men.

By contrast, the NBA’s principal ambassador, Michael Jordan, suffered a severe case of over-exposure not seen since Edy Williams used to bare nearly all at such public spectacles. Appearing in both Nike and McDonald’s commercials, Jordan received more air time than practically anyone except Dallas’ Troy Aikman and Michael Jackson, though Jordan at least managed to do so without touching himself.

Final Super Bowl thought: If Buffalo makes it back next year, let’s skip the game and have a 3 1/2-hour half-time show.

THE ODD TRIO: NBC helped sponsor and staff Monday’s “The Odd Couple” reunion at UCLA to benefit the National Actors Theater, a charity supported by network president-CEO Robert Wright; however, ABC aired the original “Odd Couple” series from 1970-83, and CBS will broadcast a planned “Odd Couple” reunion movie next year.

Hmm, three networks with ties to one project. Does Amy Fisher know about this?

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