Corporate parents, economy drain local clout

Jay Leno recently cited the importance of network affiliates. “There really is no NBC,” he told the New York Times. “There are the affiliates that own NBC. So, you go see them and say, ‘Hey, here’s what I plan to do.’ And they say, ‘We like you.’ America’s a football — whoever controls the ball, controls the game.”

But the once-(latenight)-and-future-(primetime) host appears to be living in the past. The days of affiliates exerting substantial sway over network programming decisions have largely dissipated, amid shifting priorities by corporate parents and a troubled economy that has drained local stations’ coffers and thus much of their clout.

Affiliates can talk tough, but right now these one-time cash cows are struggling — and as a consequence, could be less likely to make waves.

Look no further than Leno’s boss, NBC Universal Prexy Jeff Zucker, who has publicly stated that NBC is now “at our core a cable company” — noting that the majority of revenue comes from cable, which he called “just a better model.”

An evolving view of broadcast economics — as well as NBC’s well-publicized programming woes — were responsible for the decision to strip Leno weeknights at 10 o’clock, essentially reducing the network’s surface area (and thus its overhead) in primetime. Affiliates expressed concern, but NBC has forged ahead. And when the network’s Boston station threatened to drop Leno’s new program, NBC promptly slapped them into compliance.

That bit of backpedaling was a wise move — and not just because Leno grew up in Massachusetts. Because the last thing broadcasters need right now is more local time to sell, what with their biggest ad category, car dealerships, in a spending freefall.

Broadcast networks clearly envy the cable model, which enjoys a dual revenue stream combining subscriber fees with advertising. That explains why network execs have been doing a pretty good impersonation of those bandits in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” — “Broadcast signal? We don’t need no stinkin’ broadcast signal!” — with NBC and CBS honchos saying they can envision a day not that far in the future where they migrate their service onto a cable tier.

“Ultimately one of (the networks) will make a break … (and) try to make a go as a cable network,” former NBC Prez Randy Falco predicted in the Wall Street Journal shortly before his exit from AOL earlier this year.

In reality, it’s unlikely such a move is imminent, so the talk is most likely posturing. Still, with NBC stripping Leno and the CW giving Sunday night back to affiliates, stations face an increasingly daunting scenario — wrestling with woes shared by other media, such as newspapers.

As it stands, many stations have already significantly increased their reliance on infomercials and paid programming — even in larger markets — to offset the hit they’ve taken in terms of unsold ad inventory. It would seem the last thing many need is a messy network divorce leaving them with more hours to fill.

Affiliate power reached its last peak during the early 1990s. Fox surprised the major networks by luring several leading affiliates to defect following its acquisition of pro football broadcast rights — a huge financial driver for stations, especially in those cities that host NFL franchises.

Around the same time, when ABC launched the gritty police drama “NYPD Blue” in 1993, more than 50 stations — about a quarter of the network’s total — declined to air it. The network persevered, the show became an immediate hit, and stations gradually relented. Similarly, a few years later when Ellen DeGeneres and her fictional character came out as a lesbian on her sitcom, “Ellen,” ABC’s Birmingham affiliate balked.

Stations still take stands to uphold local “community standards,” but these days high-profile acts of defiance (the NBC-Boston situation notwithstanding) seldom garner the attention they once did. And with stations scrapping and clawing for local dollars, a few irate calls to the switchboard regarding network fare represents a less pressing concern on their priority list.

So while Leno’s strategy of wooing affiliates helped win him “The Tonight Show,” tough times have seriously deflated that football. And for stations that once ran up the score without much effort, the network TV equation has become a whole new ball game.

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