NBC urges affils to upgrade

Comstock urges local stations to move into digital world

Beth Comstock thinks affiliates need to get with the Web and with wireless — and fast.

In one of her first public appearances as prexy of NBC Universal digital media and market development, Comstock told station owners at Gotham’s TV Bureau of Advertising confab Thursday that they need to commit to the same new platforms as the networks if they hope to survive.

“I know that local stations are perfectly positioned to move into the digital world,” she said. “How are you making yourselves relevant in the context of your viewers’ busy, matrixed lives?”

Comstock suggested affils use the same digital techniques to target customers as the nets are using, but in a manner more suited to them. Local sports scores on portable devices, added video news coverage on Web streams and more community features on Web sites are options the affils should be embracing, she said.

Comstock’s talk comes as relations between networks and affils are strained by new platforms like VOD and Webcasting.

On Wednesday NBC tried to thaw the relationship with the announcement that it would create a service with affils called the National Broadband Co., which would pool both parties’ assets and market to digital venues.

Unlike competitors such as Fox, however, NBC has yet to say it will share digital revenue for its own programming with affiliates.

Talk also overlooked some inherent obstacles. So far, most of the on-demand and mobile deals have centered on net-owned content, and affils could have a tricky time turning content that isn’t locally produced into coin without network help.

Comstock downplayed concerns that affiliates would be hurt by the changes roiling television delivery. “The network-affiliate relationship goes back more than 50 years,” she said. “I have no doubt it will continue to serve the nation during our new age of digital television and multiplatform video content.”

But she also subtly signaled that NBC wouldn’t back down from VOD and on-demand Internet deals that in some cases have angered affils. “Conventional wisdom is the enemy at a time like this,” she said.

Network overtures should be a good sign for affils, experts said, but they go only so far.

“The affiliates have to be encouraged by the fact that there is a willingness to look at what the probabilities and possibilities are,” said Bill Carroll, veep and director of programming for the Katz Television Group. “But it’s a mixed bag. There is no consistency in how the networks are dealing with affiliates,” which he said is heightening the tension in some relationships.

Event also saw the affils themselves try to stir the crowd with a mix of gloom and rallying cry. “We’re still looking at the same pot of money. We need to find a way to create revenue streams that aren’t ad-based,” said Gannett Broadcasting prexy-CEO Roger Ogden. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

Execs cautioned not to overlook the role of regulators in tipping leverage to affils.

“We have to take our message not only to Madison Avenue and Wall Street but to Washington, D.C.,” said outgoing Belo veep Jack Sander, who received TVB’s broadcaster of the year award, as he urged the FCC to adopt “new ownership rules for the modern-day marketplace.”