Nets look out for No. 1 at panel

CBS affiliate relations prexy Tony Malara used the panel “Can the Network-Affiliate Marriage Be Saved?” as a bully pulpit to sell the network case , even turning moderator Rush Limbaugh into a shrinking violet.

“We put together the best system of broadcasting in the world,” Malara bellowed. “No studio today can bring the power, programming, money and horizontal promotion day after day.”

Malara was flanked by his counterparts from the other networks: ABC’s Bryce Rathborn, NBC’s Bob Niles and Fox’s Preston Padden, who echoed Malara’s sentiments. They made the network case, did a little studio-bashing and claimed a growing emphasis on consulting their affils in programming and business decisions.

The two remaining panelists, Meredith Broadcasting prexy Phil Jones and WSVN Miami general manager Robert Leider, played the roles of the bruised partners, a bit wary that the networks had their interests as a primary goal.

“The networks don’t send us flowers or sing us love songs anymore,” said Jones, adding a barely veiled reference to the whittling away of compensation payments by the networks over the last several years. “They need to get us pumped up, not harangue us and beat us up.”

Leider, whose station lost its NBC affiliation a few years back and ended up with Fox, exhibited a lingering wariness about how much an affil can trust its network.

“We had a 30-year relationship with NBC and then we found out they were carrying on with someone else,” said Leider, referring to NBC abandoning WSVN to purchase WTVJ, another station in the marketplace.

“We thought we’d start a courtship with CBS, but they wanted more–they wanted ownership. So we started dating a younger person (i.e., Fox) and, like a lot of second marriages, we talk more and work together more.” The varying camps seemed to reach a consensus that financial pressures contributed, at least in part, in putting network-affil relations on rocky ground. Malara noted that any recent uptick in preemptions of web fare is more the result of tough economic times than the studios flooding the market with product targeted for prime time.

Jones concurred and said this is the time for networks and their affils to “circle the wagons” against the onslaught from cable and independents.

Panel moderator Limbaugh decried the power of the networks to bump his show from a late fringe slot, even if it was drawing a bigger audience than the network fare.

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