Board members willing to help with 'ER' costs

NEW YORK — NBC affiliates are open to the idea of giving back some ad time to the network to help pay for the $13 million-an-episode “ER,” affiliate board members indicated Monday.

The network will approach its affiliates in about two weeks about making some type of contribution, said Neil Braun, president of the NBC Television Network.

NBC is in the process of creating a plan for the network to form a “joint venture” with its affiliates, and Braun will present the details to the affiliate board by the end of April. That plan will address the relationship between the network and its affiliates for next year and future years.

The negotiation over the Warner Bros. series “ER” is a separate issue from the joint venture that will be included with several other short-term issues, and should be wrapped up before the joint venture discussions get serious.

Not ‘without their help’

“For six months we’ve been talking to our affiliates about how franchise programming is getting to the point where we can’t afford it without their help,” said Braun. ” ‘ER’ is just the concrete example of what we’ve been talking about.”

Braun said that he’s ready to talk to the affiliate board about funding “ER” but he’s waiting for Ken Elkins, president and CEO of Pulitzer Broadcasting Co. and a member of the NBC affiliate board, to return from his trip to the Winter Olympics in Japan.

NBC’s attempt to convince its affiliates to help the network cover its costs for “ER” comes as ABC, CBS and Fox are trying to get their affiliates to cough up either cash or ad inventory to help pay for their new NFL deals.

NBC passed on retaining rights to the NFL because it felt the cost was too great.

Braun said the key to striking a deal with its affiliates on both the “ER” issue and the larger joint venture he’s developing was to eliminate the sometimes adversarial relationship NBC and its affiliates have had in the past.

Reciprocity key

“In this competitive environment, the network affiliates and the network understand that they need each other more, not less,” said Braun. “That reciprocal need requires that you have very candid conversations to solve these problems, contrary to past relationships. My goal is to come up with a plan that they applaud rather than fight, and I think that’s doable.”

NBC’s affiliates are far from a homogeneous bunch, but they generally said they were willing to play ball with the network.

“We have to figure out a way to have a partnership going forward,” said Al Buch, G.M. of KSNW Wichita and a member of the affiliate board. “I’d be in favor of swapping ad time, if that’s what it takes.”

Michael Carson, G.M. of WHDH Boston and also on the affiliate board, said the network has not yet approached the board about “ER,” but the issue wasn’t a surprise because NBC had previous discussions with the board about programming costs growing so high that the network would need a helping hand from the affiliates at some point.

“The network and the affiliate board really have a very open dialogue,” said Carson. “We have a good thing going with the network.”

Because network programming costs are escalating, broadcast networks are finding it harder and harder to make a profit.

Last year NBC was the only major network to turn a sizable profit. Many industry observers believe that broadcast networks will become loss leaders or break-even entities designed to feed programming to their stations, which is where they’ll make the majority of their profits.

Braun disagreed with this prediction.

“If that happens, everyone here will think of themselves as complete failures,” he said.

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