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News Nets’ Nasty Logistics

As ABC and NBC prepare to do battle in the cable news business, both are asking an awful lot of their affiliates.

Both webs say they want their affiliates to play a key part in their projects, but neither has said just how affiliates will be able to participate. There have been hints of possible profit participation from both networks, but such profits may be a long way off.

At the NBC/Microsoft press conference last week to unveil the service (see story, page 29), NBC News prexy Andrew Lack said affiliates will have significant blocks of time in the network for local inserts as well as the ability to blow out the service for a big local story should one break.

On top of that, NBC Television Network president Neil Braun said the MSNBC service would pay affiliates a license fee for using the stations’ footage in stories and – unlike CNN – credit the stations.

But the affiliates could face tall economic and technological hurdles when it comes to actually providing original news for these cable networks.

For starters, many markets – particularly major markets – have several cable operators, meaning that the affiliates will have to establish hookups to transmit programming.

“If you are an affiliate in a market with 10 different cable operators, you’re talking about physically undertaking and connecting hardware. That is not cheap,” said a cable exec at a large operator.

Indeed, such interconnections to a cable operator’s headend will easily run into the millions for affiliates.

On the plus side, some affiliates are already running local news channels, such as ABC affil WJLA Washington, which operates NewsChannel 8, and NBC affils WPXI Pittsburgh and KRON San Francisco.

The affiliates recognize that much of talk right now is pie-in-the-sky. While NBC execs talked at length about the importance of affiliates to the news channel, they have not discussed the dynamics between them in any detail.

“The important thing for NBC is getting this deal done,” says NBC affiliate board member and KWWL Cedar Rapids, Iowa, general manager Jim Waterbury. “The gain for affiliates will be substantially down the road.”

Alan Frank, head of the affiliate board news committee and general manager of WDIV Detroit echoes those sentiments.

“What they’re doing now is putting a basic plan together, and there is potential to involve affiliates. They want this to be as positive as possible.”

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