ALTV sesh sparks spat over impact of LMAs

NEW ORLEANS – A contentious panel on programming Monday saw sparks fly between syndicators and station group owners over the impact of LMAs and cable distribution.

The panel, during a morning session of the Assn. of Local Television Stations confab, saw four syndication chiefs arguing with UPN prexy Lucie Salhany over the impact of local marketing agreements. The session was called “Programming Issues on the Eve of the 21st Century.”

Salhany and Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution president Dick Robertson did agree that LMAs have proven a helpful way to rescue weak stations and gain clearances for UPN and WB netlet programming in the process.

Loss of competition

But Robertson and other syndicators said the practice – in which a station programs and sells time on a weaker affil in the same market – has had “a devastating effect on the prices of programming,” lowering them by 25% to a third, by knocking out a competitive bidder.

He pointed out that Warner Bros. had hoped to break the record $30,000 per-episode license fee set by Buena Vista’s “Home Improvement” in the San Antonio market; however, with stations owned by Sinclair and Paramount joined in an LMA linkup, the studio’s highest bid was just $10,000.

“What happened is, we wound up selling the show to a network affiliate for $1,000 less to maintain competitive bidding in the market,” a situation he said was repeated in several others.

“The stations that are LMAs are traditionally the biggest buyers of syndicated programming,” added Barry Thurston, president of Columbia TriStar Television Distribution.

“It’s one thing if a company owns one LMA, but it’s another thing if a company owns 30,” he said.

But Salhany countered that Warner Bros.’ own WeB TV cable distribution for the WB netlet in smaller markets amounts to another form of LMA. She accused Robertson of being hypocritical on the subject, especially since WeB will deprive local stations in its markets of exclusivity on some WB shows like the popular “Rosie O’Donnell.”

Issue of survival

The prospect of losing exclusivity also infuriated station execs like Kevin O’Brien, the panel’s moderator and head of Cox Broadcasting’s station group, as well as Salhany, who said exclusivity for local stations – and especially smaller outlets without strong news or sports franchises – is essential for their survival.

Consolidation among station groups, while slowing, is also worrisome to syndicators. They see the balance of power shifting away, especially on non-hit shows and with network O&O groups whose parents have their own production arms.

“There are less slots in which to sell shows, and more product to sell, which fuels the cable television industry,” Thurston said.

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