Warner Bros., faced with limited potential outlets for its fifth broadcast network, may start acting as a midwife to create new independent TV stations in cities throughout the country.
By contrast, WB fifth-net rival Paramount, which is ahead of its competitor with 36 signed affils compared to WB’s 24, is not looking to give birth to new indie stations. Instead, it’s aggressively going after the existing ones.
Playing catch-up, WB has quietly hired indie-station veteran Hal Protter, who has been busy seeking ways to pump life into “marginal TV stations,” as he puts it. These are the ones, he explains, “which barely scrape by with hash-mark ratings because they’re scheduling mixtures of home shopping, religious programming and infomercials.”
These underachieving stations would not be candidates for affiliation with Warner Bros., but for the advent of the “local market agreement,” or LMA.
Under the LMA, a strong affiliate in a market agrees to take over the programming, sales and promotion of one of these borderline indies without changing its ownership. The Federal Communications Commission prohibits a TV station group from owning more than one outlet in a given market.
Although Warners is beating the bushes for LMA deals, Par actually signed the first pair two months ago: WLMT in Memphis, Tenn., and KTFO in Tulsa, Okla. “Both of these stations were struggling, so our Fox affiliates in the markets entered into an LMA deal with them,” says Lowry Mays, president and CEO of Clear Channel Communications.
Two more pre-existing LMAs joined up as Paramount affiliates last week, KFVE in Honolulu and KTTU in Tucson, Ariz., both run by Providence Journal-owned Fox affiliates.
Meanwhile, says Protter, “We’re sitting down with group owners who know how to operate UHF indies, discussing the potential opportunities in specific markets for doing LMAs.”
The station doing the LMA would funnel more audience-pleasing programming to its weak sister and Warners would take on the LMA as an affiliate of its new network service.
Warners plans to start its net-work operation in January with at least two hours of primetime programming. By the end of the decade, its goal is to reach the level where the Fox Network is now — 15 hours a week of primetime shows and a full lineup of children’s shows.
Paramount plans to kick off in January with four hours of original programming over two nights, highlighted by another “Star Trek” spinoff.
“There’s nothing we can really do about it but remind our affiliates that these LMAs could turn out to be bad business decisions,” said a Fox exec. “But we can’t stop competition — it’s a fact of life.”
Paramount execs regard LMAs as a last resort. One source at Paramount says the new network’s first choice in a market is “a viable independent.”
Its second choice is to try to get another network’s affiliate in the market to run the Paramount shows. A Big Three affil could run the Paramount shows in prime access or in the 11 p.m. timeslots, and a Fox affil could play them at 10 p.m., when Fox is not supplying network programming.
The third choice could be an LMA or the cable coverage generated by one of Paramount’s charter network affiliates, New York superstation WWOR.
WGN’s a trump card
WB is actually counting on WGN, its Chicago superstation affiliate, as an ace in the hole in markets where no logical outlet exists for the fifth-network programs, not even an LMA.
But in most instances an LMA is a better alternative for WB and Par than a superstation’s signal delivery.
“I’m going to engineer as many LMAs as I can,” says David Smith, president of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns indie stations in cities including Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. “I figure that’s my best chance of survival in the 500-channel universe of the future.”