On the brink

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The network-affiliate war keeps escalating. Last week, CBS vowed to disenfranchise its own affiliate advisory board. Networks have canceled or scaled back affiliate meetings. Affiliates have petitioned the FCC to crack down on all the networks, claiming that they have abused their powers. And now NAB is facing losing either its remaining networks-ABC and CBS-or some of its large station groups because they can't get along. Talk about dysfunctional families.

Will the two sides ultimately be able to bind up their wounds? They'd better. Free over-the-air TV is still a flag waving over Washington. The networks can't move their programming to cable, as Disney and others once threatened, without raising the pulses of legislators who aren't about to let their Final Four or World Series or Super Bowl or Tiger playoff go to pay TV. And stations, in the midst of the greatest technological makeover in their history, can't afford to be dislocated from their programming streams. Both sides have legitimate arguments, but neither can afford to let their current breach become a chasm. This means that the NAB will have to find a way to show its support for its angered affiliates, without signing onto the FCC petition that was effectively the declaration of war. It doesn't matter who was right in the fight if no one is left standing at the end.

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