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The sole survivor

Only CBS holds a get-together with its affiliates 6/03/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

No one exactly hung out the Welcome Home banner, but CBS and its affiliates last week attempted to put aside their differences—at least for the time being—and savor the network's success at what will turn out to be the only network affiliate meeting of the year.

The two sides have been at odds since the Network Affiliate Station Alliance filed its petition with the FCC in March, alleging abuse of power by the Big Three networks. CBS executives were upset with their affiliate board for failing to notify them in advance and had all but demanded the current affiliate board be ousted.

After two days at Las Vegas' Bellagio Hotel, the mood mellowed somewhat.

The affiliates voted "overwhelmingly," sources said, to retain the current board; the network agreed to recognize and re-establish relations with them. The two sides cheered and applauded CBS TV President and CEO Les Moonves' fall schedule. There were even a few hugs and kisses thrown in.

Viacom President and CEO Mel Karmazin told affiliates that there are a number of areas where the two sides will probably never agree, especially the station-caps issue. But he said that they must work together in order to be successful and that the heated "rhetoric" between the two sides must be eliminated.

"Obviously, we believe that, if there were a model that were better for us than the model that exists today between networks and affiliates, believe me, we would have done it," Karmazin said. "We love you, but at this point, if there were a better model, we'd be doing it. … We have so much more stuff in common than we disagree on."

Speaking later with reporters, Karmazin said that Viacom's Infinity radio stations will not be returning to NAB, nor will the CBS broadcast stations. He also said there are currently no discussions taking place with News Corp. for joint ownership of UPN and continued his mantra that the upcoming upfront advertising period will not be as bad as expected.

"We're not having any difficulty" attracting advertisers at CBS stations, he said. In fact, advertisers are getting great deals, and most of the company's sales managers are "wimps" for caving in to lowball offers from advertisers. "If, in fact, there's no demand, then advertisers are going to have a field day in negotiating your prices," he added.

To the affiliates, Karmazin played up the fact that NBC, ABC and Fox opted out of separate affiliate meetings this year. Not CBS. "We wanted to have this meeting. I think this is to our advantage," he said, stressing that it was "wrong" for the other networks to abandon them.

That elicited excited applause from the 250 or so affiliates, who are led by Ray Deaver, of KWTX-TV Waco, Texas—who, it's signficant to note, was still was the chairman of the CBS affiliate advisory board when the parlay ended.

That was once in some doubt. After the NASA complaint was filed, CBS' head of affiliate relations, Peter Schruth, sent a letter to affiliates threatening not to deal with the board. He softened his stance but added that CBS executives would still like to see more board representation by major station owners.

The hot topics going in were preemptions, repurposing programming and digital must-carry, and, at the end, those still were the hot topics. "We didn't get enough time to really accomplish too much," Deaver said as the confab was ending. "We hope to follow this up with subsequent meetings, but I think we all felt like it was a start."

Schruth said, "I think we have more or less decided that, for starters, we are really going to cut down on the rhetoric that has been flying back and forth between the affiliates and the network."

After going through the network's fall schedule, Moonves reassured affiliates that the network's "first and foremost" interest was also over-the-air broadcasting. He said CBS "got a bum rap" and was unfairly lumped together with other networks in the NASA petition.

Moonves said CBS will support assured transfer of affiliations to qualified buyers and reasonable preemption caps for local programming. He added that, while the network will continue to repurpose programming onto cable networks and other platforms, it would be do so less aggressively than competitors.

For example, the network syndication deal to rebroadcast CBS' freshman hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
at co-owned TNN is one year after its network airing; at other networks, some prime time shows are rebroadcast on cable the same week.

And next year? Karmazin said there will likely be another affiliates meeting.

March