After some 10 years of delaying ABC’s “Nightline” in favor of Paramount’s “Entertainment Tonight” despite the pleas of network brass, Belo Broadcasting’s WFAA Dallas last week finally started airing the show in pattern.

The reason? Belo’s new longterm affiliation agreement with the network.

It’s a similar story for many affiliates, as syndication execs will confirm. With the big bucks they’re paying affiliates in compensation, the networks will no longer be as tolerant of preemptions as they have in the past.

Networks battling preemptions is nothing new, but the whip is starting to crack now.

“If I am going to give you a longterm deal and money, we want things in exchange,” says CBS affiliate relations president Tony Malara.

“We have all tightened our relationship with our affiliates,” confirms Neil Braun, NBC Television Network prez. “We don’t expect a station with an existing syndication contract to eat it; I try to be sensitive. My attitude is before you put some new thing on from someone else, you have to clear our schedule.”

It’s working. The networks are reporting higher clearance levels, and while some of the improvements are the result of many years of pushing, much can also be attributed to the new state of affiliate relations since the Fox-New World deal that saw 12 major-market Big Three affils defect to the weblet.

“What is important for the network is stability in our programming schedule; the entertainment division needs the support,” says CBS’ Malara. “All of this, I hasten to add, in no way jeopardizes a station’s right to make whatever moves it must make as a broadcast licensee.”

“They’re paying more money, they want better clearances,” says Jonathan Klein, president of Group W TV, which inked a longterm, multimillion-dollar affiliation deal with CBS. Syndicators, in the meantime, are concerned that a renewed emphasis on affiliate clearances in key time periods including latenight and daytime will hurt their sales efforts.

“It is going to have a negative impact on the business,” predicts Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth Television. “Our sales efforts for adult sitcoms will be impacted. ABC and CBS affiliates were always considerations for adult off-network sitcoms, and that is changing.”

Meidel added that the improved clearances have paved the way for indie stations and Fox affiliates to become major players for talkshows. “It is an opportunity for them to create daytime blocks in nontraditional ways.”

Double-run issue

Syndicators probably will feel the impact more in shows that they want stations to double-run. Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, for example, is offering stations a double run of talker “Jenny Jones” for latenight. But with CBS launching “Tom Snyder” this week and most affiliates expected to clear it – and NBC pushing harder for in-pattern clearances of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” – the syndicator may face a hard road.

For the stations, it’s hard to object to the demand for clearances when affiliate compensation has in many cases doubled or tripled from last year.

“Ultimately it’s fair,” says Group W’s Klein. When asked whether a station would be reluctant now to dump a poorly rated network show, he said, “You’d almost be better off to leave the bad network show on and keep the compensation rather than adding a syndicated show that you can sell for $100 per spot.”

It might not be so bad for the affiliates. According to Cathy Creany, president and general manager of WFAA Dallas, “Nightline” had strong ratings in its first week in the 10:30 p.m. timeslot, even winning one night against CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” and NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

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