Affiliates Encouraged By Nets’ Upfront Slates

Station executives say they see most improved programming lineups in several years

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
Strong primetime shows, especially at 10 p.m., drive more viewers to network affiliates’ local programming.

Affiliate leaders say that after a run of uninspired seasons, they closed out the upfronts decidedly more optimistic than they have been in recent years due to seemingly renewed commitments from the networks.

“I think we are seeing a comeback,” said Jeff Rosser, the Raycom VP who chairs the Fox affiliate board. “We are probably going to have the best season coming up that we’ve had in five or six years.”

Rosser and his fellow heads of other Big Four affiliates credit their uptick in confidence to what they see as the networks making concerted efforts to boost the caliber of their primetime slates in keeping with what stations need—as well as improving their offerings in the crucial 10 p.m. hour. For Rosser, that includes Fox launching new shows—The Exorcist, 24: Legacy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show—that are actually produced by the network, which he sees as a nod to being more in keeping with what affiliates require to be robust, he said.

“We are paying a lot for that programming so we have every right to expect a lot from the network,” he said.

NBC affiliate board chair Ralph Oakley, the president and CEO of Quincy Media, had a similar takeaway, saying he sees Comcast making good on the promise it made to boost top-tier programming when it bought the company five years ago.

“We saw a great primetime schedule for the fall that I would describe as solid and stable,” Oakley said. “If we went back a few years, it would have been hard to say that.”

Emily Barr, the president and CEO of Graham Media Group and current ABC affiliate board chair, said she was particularly heartened by the network rolling out a slate of shows that seem to jibe with stations’ calls for better lead-ins to their late-night news.

“The affiliates have expressed concerns about the 10 o’clock shows and it was evident that [entertainment president Channing Dungey] paid close attention to that concern,” Barr said.

“It at least looks like a good schedule,” she added. “The proof will be in the ratings.”

Unlike ABC (which will meet with affiliates this week in L.A.) and Fox (which wrapped that up last month in Las Vegas), NBC held its annual affiliates meeting amidst the show and schmooze of the upfronts.

Oakley said the mood among his counterparts was by and large “very positive.”

“There are always challenges between networks and affiliates,” Oakley added, but if there were any cantankerous moments at this year’s meeting, he didn’t say so.

“The people of NBC are willing to sit down and discuss what can be contentious issues,” he said.

Instead, Oakley said the meeting was in keeping with affiliates’ “long and productive partnership with NBC.”

Maximizing local programming, sales and promotional opportunities around the Rio Games—the Olympic Zone show, for example, airs in local access—as well as election coverage were among major topics, he said, as was affirming the relevance of local broadcasters.

“The tentpole for our business is over-the-air television which is still by far the most popular delivery of programming…and is still the best system in the world,” he said.

WHY AFFILIATES LEFT NEW YORK SMILING

ABC: Local broadcasters believe that the 10 p.m. schedule of seemingly top-tier programming proves that the network is responding to their concerns about raising the bar for the time slot, which is crucial for driving viewers to late-night news.

CBS: The network is reviving its back-to-back Monday night comedies, adding sitcoms starring Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc to the mix. Former NCIS star Michael Weatherly will be back on-air with the new drama Bull.

Fox: After a run of disappointing seasons, Fox affiliate execs say they see the network’s new offerings of Fox-produced shows as a sign that the company is willing to put money into creating content viewers want, rather than simply picking up others’ creations.

NBC: Affiliates say they are seeing Comcast’s long-standing promise to invest in higher caliber programming for the network coming to fruition, creating a stronger 2016-17 primetime slate than they’ve seen in years.