Stations Ponder Life Under Retrans Blanket

Affiliates eye landmark NBC ‘proxy’ arrangement—both hopefully and warily—and wonder what it means for them

The sharing of retransmission consent cash was a hot topic at the affiliate meetings during upfront week, and continues to stay top of mind as stations’ affiliation agreements come due. NBC’s blockbuster announcement about working out the framework for the network to negotiate retrans on behalf of affiliates compelled station chiefs tied to all the networks to wonder if such an arrangement might work for them. Deals of that nature were discussed when the CBS affiliates met in New York last month and remain, at least for now, on the table. “At this point, it’s just at the discussion stage,” says Scott Blumenthal, past chair of the CBS affiliates board. (Current CBS affiliates chairman Wayne Daugherty did not return calls for comment.)

Getting broadcasters on either side to talk about retrans is akin to getting them to spill their deepest and darkest secrets. But many laud NBC for working on what’s seen as an equitable and stationfriendly retrans arrangement. And while Fox was blasted for its very public dealings with its affiliates board over reverse comp demands, several CBS affiliates say their network is every bit as hardcore in the boardroom. “CBS is doing the exact same thing as Fox,” says one station group leader who asked not to be named. “They’ve just been quieter about it.”

CBS clearly is bold on retrans. On an earnings call in early May, President/CEO Leslie Moonves said he is “very confident” CBS will book $250 million in retrans (not including affiliate fees) in 2012. When CFO Joseph Ianniello broke down retrans numbers based on getting 25 cents per subscriber, Moonves added that 25 cents was “a little low.”

More recently, Ianniello spoke of getting 50 cents a sub from CBS’ owned stations, and 25 cents per from affiliates.

NBC affiliates board chairman Brian Lawlor says NBC’s proxy model should be in place this summer. But several station insiders are skeptical that the deal will come to light. “[NBCU CEO] Steve Burke and I would not have introduced it if we didn’t have high confidence that it would be possible to advance,” counters Lawlor.

Affiliates of all stripes are curious how such an arrangement might fit them. A key figure on the Fox affiliates side called it “a compelling deal.” Multiple CBS affiliates said the network did not seem receptive when the concept was brought up in New York. “I applaud NBC for taking that tack,” says Kirk Black, CBS affiliates board vice chairman. “I don’t think CBS is as interested in doing it that way.”

CBS declined to comment on blanket deals, but noted that it had quietly done a number of retrans agreements.

CBS affiliates love their thriving primetime, and are encouraged by new management—and new strategy—at CBS News. The bosses at Black Rock, and at CBS stations around the country, hope they can find common ground on the increasingly fractious topic of retrans. “Obviously it’s an issue every station, regardless of affiliation, has to deal with,” says Black. “If you look at the pattern of CBS and its affiliates, we shut the door and try to get things done.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz