Fox to affils: Toe the line

Fox Broadcasting Co. affiliates gathered for a lovefest Sunday evening at NATPE, but weblet exex still reportedly showed some skittishness about prime time preemptions on weak nights and hinted the new Chevy Chase talker may premiere as early as August.

Fox supremo Rupert Murdoch led the drum-beating at the closed-door meeting, which marked the first appearance before affils of new Fox Broadcasting chairman Lucie Salhany and Fox Entertainment Group prez Sandy Grushow.

Afterward, the crowd seemed generally pleased with Salhany, who is well regarded in the community from her years on the syndie and station side of the biz. Affils also seemed impressed by Grushow but appear to be taking more of a wait-and-see attitude.

Most of the speakers, representing the major wings of the weblet, went out of their way to urge against preemptions, as the spate of firstrun hours — particularly the resoundingly successful Paramount sequel “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”– has clearly left Fox worried about its weekend sked.

A Fox spokeswoman downplayed the issue yesterday, saying preemptions are always an issue at affiliate meetings; however, text provided from senior VP of affiliates Preston Padden’s remarks at the meeting demonstrate concern over the matter, as stations were told that they have to stop thinking like independents.

Using a sports metaphor, Padden called on stations to “put the good of the team ahead of fleeting opportunities for individual stardom. … The Fox winning game plan will do us no good if individual stations mistakenly believe that they deviate from the plan without hurting the overall effort.”

Every station, he said, has “an obligation to stick to the plan,” adding that clearance and preemption provisions of Fox’s new affiliation contracts are designed to ensure “the integrity of the network distribution system upon which you have staked your future.”

Padden noted that the “three old networks” were beset by affiliate preemptions whereas Fox would enjoy total clearance of its programs thanks to its “assured distribution system” agreements. Padden said all 117 affils whose contracts have come up over the past year have agreed to the deals, which call for all Fox Broadcasting programs to be carried in pattern.

Padden also wryly noted that affils needn’t be concerned about Fox being “spineless and wimpy in dealing with affiliates who forget that they’re on the team and revert to their old independent ways.”

To demonstrate Fox’s reciprocal commitment to affiliates, Padden cited a 51% increase in Fox’s advertising budget this year for both national media and co-op , as well as the affiliates’ “free use” of the Fox trade name in their efforts to establish a brand identity, which he deemed “our most valuable asset.”

On another matter of importance to affiliates, Padden cautioned stations against entering into agreements with cable systems regarding retransmission that might “undervalue our enormously popular product” until Fox can conclude talks with several large multiple system operators trying to “break the impasse and forge lasting win-win relationships.”

Fox’s new late night host, Chevy Chase, also turned out to provide a glimpse of his upcoming talk show, saying he wants to assemble a “very funny” program with a core group of comedy writer-performers — a throwback to his “Saturday Night Live” days, when scribes such as Al Franken emerged as personalities in their own right.

Fox indicated the new late night series could premiere in August (the same time CBS is expected to launch David Letterman’s new show), but exex noted the host may have some commitments in September that could prevent the early start. Chase reportedly took a jab at Letterman, reminding the crowd that he was performing on network TV long before Letterman hit the big time.

The comedian found a receptive audience. A Fox insider noted that he was funny enough to allay the fears of some general managers who earlier had reservations about him.

The one-liners were also apparently good enough to prevent general managers from raising the dreaded “A” word. Some Fox affils are thought to have recently renewed “The Arsenio Hall Show,” which would force them to continue airing the Paramount program at 11 p.m. and push back Chase to midnight.

However, Padden said most “Arsenio” agreements with Fox affils expire next December and that all but one Fox station will be carrying Chase “in pattern” (at 11 p.m.) by January 1994.

Most affils interviewed emphasized that they walked away satisfied, noting that it would be tough to find much fault with a company that turned a ragtag band of weak UHF indies into powerhouses.

Still, as Fox and Chase put on their dog-and-pony show, there remained some question regarding whether all stations are willing to follow the company line and air the show at 11 p.m. According to one source who attended the session, some extremely loyal weblet affiliates were suddenly overheard at the meeting saying the new Chase program would serve as a nice complement to “Arsenio.”

In markets where CBS affils give up “Arsenio,” the possibility exists that Hall could wind up following Chase. “Better at midnight on a Fox affiliate than at 12:30 a.m. on a CBS affiliate,” said a TV station rep source.

Efforts to establish a news presence also prompted discussion at the affiliate gathering. Fox News prez Van Gordon Sauter said the plan to create a prime time news magazine and expand local newscasts remained on track, though the process remains a slow one. So far, 33 Fox affiliates are offering newscasts and 15 others are contemplating launching their own news shows.

Trying to convince reluctant stations to take the plunge, Fox offered G.M. testimonials from those who tried it and liked it. Fox hopes more affils will enter the news business once the economy picks up and ad dollars increase.

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