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Affils just say no to NBC cable recycling program

NEW YORK — Angry NBC affiliates are gearing up for a showdown here today with Peacock web CEO Bob Wright about the increasingly thorny issue of reusing the web’s programming on cable outlets.

Wright, along with NBC network prexy Neil Braun, will meet with a dozen group station owners upset about NBC’s repeated use of network programming — once the exclusive domain of affiliates — on cable webs CNBC and MSNBC, and its use of network airtime to promote them. Groups that will be at the meeting include Pulitzer, Gannett, Post-Newsweek, Belo, Hearst and Scripps Howard.

And to hear the affils tell it, the confab won’t be pretty.

“I’m going to be aggressively in opposition to their doing this and exhaust all of my options,” said Bill Ryan, president and CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations. “I think it’s flat-out wrong. It’s not in the spirit of the partnership we’ve shared for 30 years, and it’s going to have a major impact on our business if they time-shift programs. The way you have to build cable franchises is with original programming; you don’t eat your young. And they’re using us to promote it, which is even more outrageous.”

Ryan already has preempted an episode of “Dateline” from the company’s Detroit and Houston NBC affils in protest.

The skirmish began in earnest in June, when NBC Sports promos steered network viewers of the NBA Finals to a post-game show on CNBC and away from affils’ late local news. Since then, CNBC began airing month-old repeats of NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in primetime in what was billed as “an experiment,” and in early March, MSNBC began airing “Dateline This Week,” culling segments from the previous week’s “Dateline NBC” primetime newsmag.

Ryan has also tried to enlist other group owners to preempt “Dateline” in protest. Cox Broadcasting’s WPXI Pittsburgh dropped the show for one episode.

Some other broadcasters, while not thrilled with what NBC is doing, accept it so long as the web shows some restraint in its efforts. Airing “Dateline” — even in front of a comparatively minuscule audience — less than a week after its network run damages their inherent strengths as network affiliates.

One group owner offered a parallel to the movie business, equating TV stations with film exhibitors. “If you distributed a movie to homevideo 30 days after it went to theaters, the theater owners would go crazy.”

In an interview, Braun struck a sympathetic chord, and he clearly has much at stake in trying to defuse a volatile issue.

“I think there is tremendous anxiety about how to maintain the value of their franchise in a more competitive world, and that is a very reasonable emotion,” he said. But he denied suggestions from others at the network that the issue was non-negotiable, and the meeting merely was an attempt to prepare affils for the inevitable.

“The whole point of this is to go in constructively,” Braun said. “This is not going to be a ritualistic meeting. We’re not going to present our side and stiff-arm them.”

The network’s current position of strength however, enables it to do just that if the conflict reaches an impasse, and network sources suggest they have plenty of options in response to a protracted preemption strike by the affils.

“NBC has all the ratings they can spare,” one group owner said. “If there were any time to stick it up the nose of affiliates, this is the time, because most affiliates are anesthetized by success.”

As a result, few expect NBC to pull back on its migration of network programming to cable, or to increase affiliate compensation yet again to make up for the potential ratings shortfall. In fact, sources said a decision to pull “Late Night” from CNBC, where it was placed by NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer late last year, was put off in fear of “sending the wrong message” to affiliates. Still, the reruns, averaging a meager 0.2 rating in CNBC’s universe, are expected to end by late spring.

While NBC may be No. 1, affiliates could fight back by not airing promos or by preempting in protest.

Due to the affiliate shakeup of 1994, the networks for the most part have long-term deals with their stations. That means that NBC can’t really threaten to drop anyone, because there is nowhere else to go.

As for trying to appease the affils, nothing but a full retreat will likely satisfy many of the operators.

“This is a core fundamental issue and nothing will buy us off other than an agreement that we are the exclusive franchise of NBC programming” one affiliate board member said.

“Our concern is cannibalizing our own audiences,” said LIN Broadcasting head Gary Chapman, who added that he is not sure that NBC is aware of the potential harm the web may be causing with its cable efforts.

NBC is not the only web with this problem. ABC’s plan to launch a soap cable channel with Comcast also was derailed last year in part because of affil reaction to time-shifting daytime dramas.

In contrast, CBS — patching up recent acrimony with affils in the Larry Tisch era — has been extremely sensitive about alienating them concerning its Eye on People cable network, which plans to show archival segments from “60 Minutes,” but only after a lengthy broadcast window. The web mistakenly sent missives to affils this week asking them to air promo spots for Eye on People, but Thursday Wednesday retracted the request, saying it was meant only for O&O stations.

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