Fox and affils — two-way street

While CBS fumes over the number of its affiliate stations that refuse to clear its new “Late Show with David Letterman” at 11:35 p.m. weekdays, the Fox Broadcasting Co. is confident that all but six of the 140 Fox stations will be on boardfor the 11 p.m. launch of “The Chevy Chase Show” tonight.

“We have 100 per cent of our affiliates signed up to carry Chevy,” declares Preston Padden, Fox’s executive VP, affiliates. “The six carrying the show with a slight delay have pre-existing contractual conflicts, but they will end Jan. 1 , and we’ll be 100% in pattern.”

That TV’s “fourth network” demonstrates such solidarity is testament to both the Fox affiliates’ loyalty and the network’s firm hand.

“I won’t say that stations came along yelling and screaming, although some of them weren’t crazy about the move,” says Greg Filandrinos, VP and general manager of KDNL, St. Louis. “But a big majority embraced it.”

Filandrinos, who is also chairman of the Fox Affiliates Board, signed up for the show. “For my station, I think it’s great,” he says. “It’s firstrun, Chevy’s very popular, and I think he’ll have a different type of program from the regular Leno and Letterman.”

Martin Colby, VP-generalmanager of XETV, San Diego, and founding chairman of the Fox Affiliate Board, moved “The Arsenio Hall Show” to accommodate Chevy Chase.

“We had a contract with Paramount to run Arsenio at 11 p.m., but we negotiated to move that show so we could run Chevy,” says Colby. “Without that 11 o’clock start you’re really handicapping the opportunity to be successful.”

Fox affiliates VP Padden couldn’t agree more. He’s highly critical of the CBS affiliates that are not carrying Letterman on time. “Any CBS affiliate that does not clear Letterman in pattern is, in my view, extremely short-sighted and not being a good partner,” Padden says. Fox takes a stern position on clearances. “They’ve been very, very firm,” says Colby. “Not that they ignore special needs of the stations. There were many stations that had existing sports contracts, for example, and the Fox people worked around that until the contracts ended.”

In the early days, Fox was gentle. “In the beginning it was more of a request than a demand because they were not as strong as they are today,” Colby says. “Today, with the potency that the Fox network carries, they are in a pretty good position to make their requests.”

Padden points out that in today’s wildly competitive TV environment the cable channels with which his network does battle do not have to worry about affiliate clearances.

“When Ted Turner pushes the button, the shows run,” Padden says. “Our affiliates understand that. They have to be 100% supportive of what we’re doing, and they are.”

When Fox launched its Saturday night primetime schedule in July 1987, however , some stations balked, notably the Chris Craft-owned stations in Portland and Minneapolis.

“The Chris Craft deal was extreme,” says Kevin O’Brien, general manager of KTVU, San Francisco. “That was not an occasional exemption. They weren’t going to carry Saturday night at all, ever.”

But if there is any irritant between the affiliates and the network, O’Brien says, it’s on the subject of preemptions and clearance of time periods.

Fox makes no bones about its approach. “To be sure, we’ve had our fights along the way,” says Padden. “But Fox and its affiliates have added billions, with a capital B, to the equity value of these television stations. In the overall context of that additional equity value we’ve created, those fights have been inconsequential.”

Billions? “Well, I’m not going to argue with him. Billions seems a little high, but then again we’re all broadcasters and tend to exaggerate,” says San Francisco’s O’Brien.

“It is in the hundreds of millions. It’s been very good, but please understand,this relationship has been fantastic for Fox, and I’m grateful that I’m affiliated with them. On the other hand, the stations have been very good to Fox.”

A TV network, O’Brien insists, is only as strong as its individual affiliates. “Without the affiliates, there is no network,” O’Brien says. “There must be sensitivity on both sides to the needs of the other. There’s got to be a little give and a little get.”

Filandrinos believes Fox and its affiliates make a pretty good partnership. “They are firm because they have a business to run and they have to run the network,” he says. “The biggest obstacle we have as stations is that we’re used to being independent and now we’re being asked to be an affiliate. There’s growing pains involved there.”

An independent station gets used to acting on its own behalf. “We want to do some things our way,” says Filandrinos. “We don’t necessarily agree with everything Fox does, but the bottom line is they’ve been very successful and they’ve made our stations worth a lot more money.”

XETV, San Diego, was an ABC affiliate for 17 years and general manager Colby says, “The relationship we have with Fox is the most harmonious in the broadcasting industry today.

“There have been many things that Fox has adapted to meet the stations’ needs and requests, and many things the stations have done for Fox. There’s never been any adversarial situations like those that arose when ABC and CBS were having problems with their affiliates.”

KTVU’s O’Brien says Fox and its affiliates learned from the other networks’ mistakes.

“There’s no question that we have a far superior relationship than the other three,” O’Brien says. “We had the ability to look back over the 30 years of network-affiliate relations that the other three have had, and decide how to do it right.”

O’Brien says it’s not all sweetness and light. “Certainly, it’s not perfect and there are some bumps along the road,” he says.

KTVU, and its former sister stations, WKDB, Detroit, and KDNL, St. Louis, joined Fox at the outset in 1986 when the commitment was for one night and a late show.

Becomes ‘Foxified’

“I didn’t think I was putting my stations at great risk, since it was limited ,” says O’Brien. “I thought, if it doesn’t work, I can always get myself out. But if it does work, I can’t get myself in.”

The San Francisco station “Foxified,” as O’Brien calls it, several years ago, marketing itself heavily as the Fox station. It’s paid off. “I would venture to say that we are probably the No. 1 Fox affiliate in the country,” boasts O’Brien. “We’re No. 1 in primetime in both of the latest ratings books. We were a distant fourth before Fox.”

Affiliates’ loyalty has been crucial to the network’s success too. Sandy Grushow, president, Fox Entertainment Group, is quick to agree that the fledgling network might easily have failed.

“The truth is that for a while there it came dangerously close to not working ,” Grushow says. “Ultimately, what made it work was that there was a need for a program service to speak to those audiences disenfranchised by the Big Three: younger audiences, ethnic audiences, male audiences. Unfortunately, at its inception, the programming failed to deliver on that concept.”

But then came the breakout Fox hits, led by “Married … With Children”; the gutsy moves, such as placing “The Simpsons” opposite “Cosby,” and the sheer inspiration of putting on “In Living Color” during half-time of the 1992 Super Bowl. Thirty million viewers saw it, including 21 million who switched over from game coverage on CBS.

One other way the network hashelped its affiliates is by coming to terms with cable companies. Of the 140 Fox stations, only 17 are VHF. “All the rest are UHF , double-digit numbers,” says Padden. “But through a cooperative effort that Fox has undertaken with the cable industry, we have been upgraded to VHF channels in 82% of all cable households. That has given our distribution a big boost.”

Padden believes there’s still plenty of room for growth for the Fox network. “I think in smaller markets you’re going to see stations leave the other networks and come join us,” Padden says. “We think we have a better business plan. We can demonstrate today that stations can enjoy greater profitability and gain greater asset value by being affiliated with Fox.”

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