UPN is not letting the Sinclair stations switch to the WB TV Network without a fight. On Friday night, UPN sent a letter to the WB and Sinclair claiming the station group failed to take appropriate legal action to end its affiliation with UPN, sources say.
Two weeks ago, the WB network announced that it had agreed to pay Sinclair $84 million over 10 years to convert five stations from UPN to WB affiliates next January, when the UPN-Sinclair agreements expire (Daily Variety, July 15).
But UPN, in its letter, stated that Sinclair had a six-month window to exercise its option to get out of its affiliation agreement with UPN, and because Sinclair failed to do so in writing within the time frame, the Sinclair stations are now contractually bound to remain with UPN until 2001.
Sinclair Communications CEO-designate Barry Baker and Sinclair Broadcast Group president David Smith on July 14 flew to Los Angeles and verbally notified Paramount execs that Sinclair intended to switch to the WB. However, Sinclair lawyers never officially notified the netlet in writing by the July 15 deadline — six months in advance of the affiliation agreement expiration, the UPN letter contends.
UPN had no comment, and Sinclair executives could not be reached over the weekend.
WB netlet execs also could not be reached, but a spokesperson for the Warner Bros. studio said, “We know that Paramount was given notice on July 14 and that Warner Bros. has a signed contract with Sinclair that starts at the completion of the agreements with UPN. We have no knowledge of any supposed action taken by UPN.”
While it seems unlikely UPN can force Sinclair to stay affiliated with its netlet, the mistake, if founded, could lead to a costly and protracted legal battle. If Sinclair stations were forced to remain with UPN, they could undermine the netlet by preempting programming and failing to promote the network.
A more likely scenario would be for UPN to attempt to extract a settlement from Sinclair. Either way, the fact that UPN is not letting Sinclair go quietly signals the importance of the Sinclair stations to both emerging networks.
The Sinclair stations in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Antonio and Oklahoma City that are currently affiliated with UPN, plus stations in Milwaukee; Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and Greenville, S.C., are slated to become the WB’s largest non-equity station group next January.
Sinclair has some of the strongest stations in those markets, and if they switch to the WB, UPN will likely be forced to find weak, low-power stations in their place. The WB also said that after the switch, the WB’s primary station coverage will equal UPN’s at 72% of the country for the first time since the two networks launched.
It’s unclear what UPN’s hardball tactics will do to the relationship between the Paramount studio and Sinclair, which do a lot of business together on the syndication side. Sinclair is sometimes the only legitimate indie buyer of syndicated programming in many markets, so it has a lot of clout when dealing with studios selling programming.
This move by UPN could shift some leverage back toward Paramount when dealing with Sinclair, or it could backfire, and Sinclair could refuse to buy Paramount programming in the future. So far, UPN has not filed a lawsuit against Sinclair, but the letter sent Friday is certainly the first step in what could turn into an ugly struggle.