Live Together, Die AloneWith new threats to the broadcasting industry popping up every day, networks and affiliates had better get on the same page. Fast. 4/18/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
I was having a quiet dinner at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville
in Vegas last week, or as quiet a dinner as you
can have in a joint where women in bikinis dance in a
giant margarita glass to Buffett’s various odes to alcohol.
As I bit into my pulled pork sandwich (I was secretly proud
to order neither a margarita nor the cheeseburger in paradise),
the sound system played U2’s “With Or Without You.” I can’t live…with or without you wailed the chorus, as a
woman in pirate garb strutted past on stilts.
The song broke through Sin City’s sensory clutter
for two reasons: It was a pleasant break from Buffett’s
sun-baked oeuvre, and the words were particularly fitting on the heels of the affiliate meetings
that had gone down hours before at the National
Association of Broadcasters conference.
Yes, all eyes were on the Fox meeting at the Hilton.
Even in this age of network-affiliate dysfunction, the
Fox family stands out for its brawling over the new
terms of reverse compensation. The meeting did not
disappoint: what was to run about 2½ hours took four.
A pair of guards stood sentry like they were guarding
a room of world leaders. What affiliates called the “elephant
in the room” was addressed head-on, with Fox
brass absorbing repeated body blows about how the
new retrans-sharing demands would put the locals out
of business. The mood brightened when one affiliate feigned apoplexy
as he stood up, waited a beat, then broke up the room when he asked
how the network could dismiss toothsome American Idol contestant Pia
Toscano. But the barrage from irate affiliates then continued.
Affiliates on their way out avoided reporters like Barry Bonds leaving
Burton Federal Courthouse. “We helped build that network,” allowed one.
“Most everyone agrees with [sharing retrans], but their approach is odd.”
Fox affiliates board chairman Brian Brady, whose incendiary rallying
cry to affiliates in the face of the network’s rules of engagement a
few months ago was full of venom, went with a muted approach this
time. Asked to comment on the proceedings, Brady grimaced, clenched
his teeth, and forced a smile. “It was a very open and honest dialogue,”
Brady said, in that way you tell your coworker his cringe-worthy improv
“comedy” show was entertaining.
It was many hours later that
Fox brass, reconvened in Los
Angeles, issued joint statements
from the main adversaries, Fox
affiliate sales president Mike
Hopkins and Brady, in which
each professed his side’s dedication
to the partnership. Hopkins
spoke of the “incredibly powerful
connection that only local
stations provide,” while Brady’s
statement said the 200-plus affiliates and Fox “are aligned in
our goals to create a material
dual revenue stream business
for both the stations and the network.”
Statements issued from corporate headquarters
are just that, but it was nonetheless encouraging
to see the warring factions, quite literally,
on the same page. The network-affiliate model
isn’t some quickie marriage hatched out of the
Graceland Wedding Chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard
($199 includes “three-rose nosegay and
rose boutonniere,” if you’re in the market). I’ve
yet to find anyone who thinks there’s a better
business model than hitmaking networks on
the coasts, and a few hundred affiliates in between
who complement the network fare with
local programming to create—like the Graceland
Chapel—a pretty comprehensive package.
“We totally support and need a very healthy
affiliate body,” CBS President/CEO Leslie
Moonves told broadcasters at NAB. “But programs
are very expensive and we need help.
Af! liates acknowledge that.”
Moonves, never one to pass up on a thinly
veiled shot at a rival, said CBS—unlike another
network—is not threatening to strip its
partner stations of their affiliations. Affiliates
of all networks know they have to kick in some
cash so that programming can continue to
dominate amidst the higher-quality fare on pay
television. ABC brass acknowledged affils would pick up some of the
tab if Disney landed the Olympics. And Fox has a potential home run
in The X Factor this fall; affiliates, # own to L.A. for a sneak peek at the
show in late February, were darn near blown away by what they saw.
But turning a white-hot concept into an Idol-level colossus in this
Vegas-esque, sensory-saturated era has to be a full team effort, and it
has to start now. As U2 suggests, it may be near impossible to work
with your partner—but it’s better than the alternative. After all, a Vegas
divorce (“When I Do Becomes I Don’t,” offers Nevada Divorce out in
Reno) turns out to be a lot more costly than the wedding.
Inside the Network-Affiliates Meetings
B&C takes you behind the scenes from the closed-door sessions at NAB
CW: Young Net Feels Grown Up At Positive Coffee Meeting
NBC: Comcast Making Earnest Investment In Primetime
ABC: Banking On Paul Lee
CBS: Talking News And Hoops
Fox: Guess What They Talked About?