Affiliates’ Sin City Wish Lists

What happens in Vegas at the NAB show affects TV stations year-round
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When the boards repreesenting the ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW affiliates meet with their partner networks in Las Vegas this week during the National Association of Broadcasters show, the station folks will make their voices heard about the issues that will make or break their bottom lines in 2012 and beyond. Some of those issues, such as sharing retransmission revenue and hammering out digital distribution, are universal, while others are more germane to a specific network and affiliate body.

Most everyone agrees that the network-affiliate relationship has forever changed. “There’s a lot more discussion about the business model now,” says an executive of one ABC affiliate. “It used to be good buddy with the network. Now it’s truly a business relationship.”

Since what’s past so often turns out to be prologue, we looked back at the top affiliate priorities from last year’s NAB meetings and asked the affiliates to grade their networks on how the folks on the coasts addressed their most pressing needs.

ABC: Bigger Lead-Ins

The ABC affiliates board last year made it clear that the stations wanted a big improvement in the last hour of primetime leading into the stations’ lucrative late news. They also wanted more successful comedies on the backs of hits such as Modern Family.

In terms of primetime’s back end, the affiliates say shows such as Revenge and Castle have created a stronger lead-in to local news. “I think there’s been improvement,” says Mike Lee, vice president and general manager of KXXV Waco (Texas). “I don’t think there’s been a 100% solution, but it’s better.”

Lee singles out soapy Hamptons drama Revenge as an example of a “well-written, well-executed show” that converts its attributes into ratings points.

Comedy development was a major component of last year’s board meeting. John Rouse, ABC senior vice president of affiliate relations, showed clips of perhaps a dozen comedies on the development slate of new entertainment chief Paul Lee. Affiliates say comedies, such as Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing and the rapid-fire quip assault of Happy Endings, are showing promise. “I don’t think anything approaches the success of Modern Family, but I like to see their commitment to the genre,” says Michael J. Hayes, president and general manager of WTAE Pittsburgh. “They’re throwing some things up there to try and find a hit, rather than produce more dramas.”

CBS: Get the News Right

Network news was topic A—and B—when the CBS affiliates board met last year. CBS News chairman Jeff Fager shared the network’s strategy for lifting ratings for what was then called The Early Show as well as CBS Evening News. Also top of mind last spring was the recently concluded first running of NCAA basketball March Madness as a CBS-Turner hybrid.

CBS News has taken some bold steps, including overhauling and recasting the flagging morning show as CBS This Morning. More steps are needed. “News is a work in progress,” says Rix Garey, general manager of KFDM Beaumont (Texas).

Garey gives CBS Evening News high marks, though he cops to some bias. “It’s Texas—we like Scott Pelley,” he says of the anchor, a San Antonio native. This Morning, on the other hand, remains worrisome. “There’s still concern,” he says. “The jury is still out on that.”

Bud Brown, WWL New Orleans vice president and general manager, gives Pelley, and CBS News, a vigorous thumbs-up, too. “I think a lot of what they’re doing is correct,” Brown says. “It’s all very positive signs between the affiliates and the network— we are 100% behind them.”

Sharing the March hoops games with cable, however, continues to rankle some affiliates. “Anything that erodes exclusivity makes our sales a more difficult proposition,” Brown says. “We’re concerned when [the network] makes changes like that.”

NBC: Keep Plugging at Prime

The NBC affiliates board got a close-up look at a new owner last year in Vegas. NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert, among others, was there on behalf of Comcast and heard the board’s issues with—surprise surprise—primetime.

NBC affiliates have been unhappy with their prime for years, noting how they sometimes have to multiply a primetime lead-in’s rating to win late news, while those CBS guys across the street only have to maintain theirs. The affiliates board, which got a peek at development in Vegas last year, remains hopeful that a hit or two will emerge from an ambitious batch.

In select cases, The Voice and The Biggest Loser, along with promising rookie Smash, have paced NBC affiliates to the middle of the primetime pack. “Primetime does better in New Orleans than it has in a very long time,” says Joel Vilmenay, president and general manager of the Crescent City’s WDSU. “I sense tremendous commitment on Comcast’s part to succeed in primetime.”

It is less rosy in most of the rest of the country. NBC affiliates have seen firsthand just how hard it is to create a hit—especially with basic-cable channels increasing their original output, and quality, all the time. “I’m satisfied they are trying, even if they haven’t been all that successful,” says Jim Boyer, KFOR Oklahoma City president and general manager.

The NBC affiliates utter nary a moan outside of prime, and they credit NBC for locking up the Olympics, and Today host Matt Lauer, for the long-term. “The stuff that’s working, they’re making sure it keeps working,” says Gene Kirkconnell, vice president and general manager of WVTM Birmingham (Ala.).

Fox: Don’t Forget We’re Partners

Fox had long, bare-knuckled and bloody affiliates meetings in Vegas last year, as the network reiterated its retrans mandates and suggested the affiliates fall in line—or consider life as an independent. Feelings among the affiliates were, in many cases, raw. “To use the old cliché, we were deer in the headlights,” says Mark Metzger, KLSR Eugene (Ore.) vice president and general manager. “But it kind of worked out OK.”

The Fox affiliates have a new board chairman in Steve Pruett, and station execs sense that Pruett is keen to keep the rancor in the rearview. “The first thing Steve said was about building bridges and working together with the network,” says Tim Ermish, KSTU Salt Lake City vice president and general manager. “He’s trying to make it less acrimonious.”

While they may never appreciate the way the network forced the terms on them, several affiliates somewhat grudgingly credit Fox for pushing them to raise their local retrans take. “It’s been quite stressful figuring out how to make the dollars work,” says one Fox GM who asked not to be named. “But one suspects it’s made us all better at what we do.”

Expect the retooling of The X Factor to be a major topic in Vegas when the Fox af! liates board (April 16) and body (April 17) convene in Sin City. Also expect a less volatile tenor. “I expect this year’s meeting to be a lot more harmonious,” Ermish says. “I think the network is a little more empathetic and understands the power of the affiliates. Hopefully they’ll take that into consideration when they hear the affiliates’ needs.”

CW: The Demo Dilemma

Like Fox affiliates, CW affiliates have a chance to meet with network brass in Vegas. Mark Pedowitz was named president, succeeding Dawn Ostroff, a few weeks after last year’s “Coffee With The CW”. This year's is a chance for affiliates to see what he's been working on.

“It’s his coming-out party,” says Joe Young, vice president and general manager at KDAF Dallas. “We’re going with great anticipation to see what’s in the slate.”

CW affiliates appreciate some big-name producing talent, such as J.J. Abrams, being on board with the network, and they applaud the likes of The Vampire Diaries and Ringer. They just hope the new shows appeal to a broader demographic group than typically tunes in. “One of the things that hinders our sales efforts is that we’re so defined by that demographic,” says Bill White, the general manager at WQCW in Charleston-Huntington, W. Va. “Advertisers see us as the teen-dominated station and want to de! ne us by the 10 hours a week [of CW programming].”

See You at the Petrossian Bar…

Scores of other broadcaster meetings—not as formal as the af! liate gatherings, and surely not involving coffee—will be held at watering holes at the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and other Vegas hot spots this week.

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

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