The Affront to Affiliates


ABC has always been an innovator and a risk taker. It often makes smart bets. When broadcast networks didn't know quite what to make of cable, like a savvy Vegas gambler, ABC bought a piece of ESPN, along with A&E and Lifetime. A long time ago, before miniseries were common, ABC mesmerized audiences with Roots.

Today, it is probably the most aggressive of the broadcast networks to explore new ways of repurposing programs on various broadband devices. Last week, it announced its latest chapter: Soon, viewers will be able to stream episodes of Lost, Desperate Housewives, Commander in Chief and Alias on their computers, for free, a day after they've appeared on-air. Commercials will be embedded that consumers won't be able to get past, and if a viewer chooses, he or she can watch an entire season of those hit shows.

This will be an innovative experiment for ABC, but a harrowing one for its affiliates. If ABC is going to make repurposing as easy as, well, A-B-C, what's to become of stations? Affiliates, of course, would like a piece of the pie once ABC starts making money from all those sources. Whether they get it is problematic.

Affiliates shouldn't waste time whining. Instead, they should redouble their efforts to become the best local broadcasters they can be by exhibiting the same sense of forward thinking ABC is employing. Those same broadband platforms that ABC is exploiting are open to local broadcasters, too, plus multicasting opportunities that could give them new local revenue streams and new viewers. Stations must create their own intrinsic value. Trusted, smart local newscasts are a start, and so is other local programming.

Despite partnerships between networks and affiliates that, in some cases, have lasted for decades, networks are businesses, and times change. Still, new technology isn't embraced overnight, and things don't always turn out as planned. However easy ABC makes it for broadband devices to deliver its programs (and advertising) to viewers, the TV network is a distribution system that is familiar and easy for more than 100 million households to receive, maneuver and understand. From ABC's standpoint, working with affiliates to arrange some equitable arrangement for repurposing shows seems prudent. ABC will need them to be happy campers. The network/affiliate partnership has served both well. The network must preserve that symbiotic relationship.

But affiliates ought to have their own valuable revenue streams and make themselves into the kind of distribution platforms ABC wants as partners in the long run. In the future that is happening now, favorite shows will be available online, on DVD, on a cellphone, on cable or in syndicated reruns. Now stations must provide viewers with a distinct reason to keep watching.