Affiliates losing clout

NBC stations didn't win in latenight nightmare

According to some analysts, the outcome of NBC’s latenight nightmare was a little like the classic western “The Magnificent Seven.”

Except that it wasn’t the farmers who triumphed, but only the network’s affiliates that won.

After all, network affiliates — those salt-of-the-earth local station owners and operators from what Hollywood and Manhattan notoriously dismiss as fly-over states — raised such a ruckus about Jay Leno’s performance at 10 p.m. that it forced the network’s hand. Having been pushed around and taken for granted, stations reasserted their central partnership role in the broadcasting model.

It’s a nice story, but only partially accurate.

Although affiliates’ complaints played a role in NBC’s decision, there were several considerations that influenced the network’s actions. And even if they managed to get their voices heard in this case, to put matters in Dr. Seuss terms, affils remain closer to Whos than Horton the elephant.

For starters, NBC found itself in an unusually vulnerable position: Comcast has agreed to acquire the network, and pledged its commitment to over-the-air broadcasting in part to win federal approval. With advocacy groups such as Free Press and Consumers Union arguing against the merger — labeling Comcast’s public-interest oaths “hollow” — NBC needs to ensure that its affiliate support is unwavering.

That’s a departure from not very long ago, when NBC’s then-boss Robert Wright floated the idea of migrating the network to a cable tier, leaving affiliates high and dry. But timing can be everything.

Evidence of affiliates’ diminished clout could also be seen at the recent NATPE conference in Las Vegas. Or rather, not seen — inasmuch as affiliate managers who once strode the convention floor like royalty were all but invisible.

As with newspapers, the moribund economy has exacted a bitter toll on stations, which are no longer a license to print money. Most have been forced to slash news staffs. Several prominent owners (Tribune, Sinclair, Harry Pappas) have either flirted with or sought bankruptcy protection.

In addition, the sledding promises to get tougher for many news operations with Oprah Winfrey’s announcement that she’ll leave daytime syndication in 2011 — eliminating perhaps the most reliable lead-in for afternoon newscasts the business has ever known.

As Tribune senior VP of programming & entertainment Sean Compton said during a NATPE panel regarding the tepid nature of the economic recovery, “It’s definitely better, but everything’s relative.” Hearst Television programming VP Emerson Coleman added that Winfrey’s exit — and its potential drag on news ratings — represented a “critical moment in time” for stations as they determine how to fill that void.

Admittedly, not all the trend lines are completely glum. Affiliates are negotiating to receive retransmission consent payments from cable and satellite operators, helping ease their exclusive reliance on advertising. Of course, they must wrestle their network partners over the allocation of such fees, but in troubled times any source of new revenue is clearly welcome.

All told, though, it’s a far cry from the good old days, especially around NATPE. In the 1980s and ’90s, King World and its larger-than-life leader Roger King — who brought the world Oprah and “Wheel of Fortune,” harvesting his own fortune in the process — flew in Grammy-winning acts to lavishly entertain large groups of affiliates. Eager to sell programs, even take-no-prisoners syndication execs like King, Dick Robertson and Barry Thurston felt compelled to kiss plenty of pasty white (mostly) affiliate butts.

NATPE shifts to Florida next year — where the aforementioned King, who died in 2007, created one of those indelible TV-in-the-age-of-plenty memories: During an altercation with a cab driver, he roughed the guy up and drove off in his taxi. King was subsequently arrested for cocaine possession. Sure, it was a mess at the time, but comparing that sort of conspicuous consumption to today’s austerity tends to make TV industry veterans feel oddly nostalgic.

For better and worse, that era is long gone. And while affiliates’ show of force vis-a-vis Leno proved there’s some gas left in their tanks — which they used to light pitchforks and lobby for stronger news lead-ins — there’s still a sizable gap between that fleeting spark of defiance and a full-blown victory parade.

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