Comp fight not preempted

The battle between the networks and affiliates over web-program preemptions for the use of syndicated prime time fare had looked to be subsiding over the past few months. But NATPE participants who attended a morning sesh yesterday titled “Syndication Goes Primetime” may have come away with a different outlook.

A key issue was CBS’ back-to-back demands for compensation cuts. The Eye Web first trimmed station payments by 20%, then sought to slice off another 20% last year.

The stations balked following the second round and threatened massive prime time preemptions, forcing the Eye Web to come back with only a 10% reduction.

It appeared at the time of the compromise that network-affiliate tensions had subsided, but it quickly became obvious at yesterday’s sesh that at least some affils are still seething.

“To me it is like being stabbed twice–once by a meat cleaver in ‘Fatal Attraction’ and (again) by an ice pick in ‘Basic Instinct,’…” said Rick Reeves , general manager of WTAJ-TV in Altoona, Pa., and a former NATPE conference chairman.

Reeves credits the syndicated prime time offerings for forcing CBS to rethink its position on the compensation cuts. “(The syndie shows) did their job,” he said after the sesh. “They forced the networks to capitulate a little. If the product didn’t exist, CBS would have never agreed to scale back its reductions.”

Paramount syndie prez Steve Goldman, who appeared on the panel, referred to the “steamroller” effect the syndicated prime time fare would have on affil preemptions.

But Reeves questioned how fair it is for affiliates to “cherry pick at the network.” Stations, he said, have to keep in mind that “no one has been able to successfully program all… dayparts” like the webs.

Par’s Goldman blamed the webs for creating the firstrun monster, noting that with the exception of sports, ABC, CBS and NBC had basically ignored men 18-49 in their prime time fare. Par took advantage of that, he said, with the intro of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in 1987.

Par figured it could survive low household ratings for “TNG” because advertisers were willing to pay a premium for product. But not only does “TNG” still surpass network series in the key selling demo, it remains a household success as well.

It’s been 20 years since syndicators teamed with indies to begin picking away at the traditional network strongholds: first with kids programming, then 6-8 p.m. shows and late night.

ABC and CBS affiliates joined the fray, preempting network fare with off-net product in late night and later with lucrative firstrun talkshows.

Until now, Goldman said, prime time was the only daypart that had been sacrosanct.

Although it can prove expensive to produce firstrun action hours, the payoff can be big.

With the American networks reducing the number on their airwaves by two-thirds over the past couple years, foreign buyers are hungry for the genre and have ponied up huge cash license fees to help subsidize the high production costs, noted Scott Carlin, senior VP of sales for Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution. WB has teamed with indies to form the Prime Time Network, which consists of “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues,””Time Trax” and spex.

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