TV stations will be transformed into "mere passive conduits for their networks' national programming," the National Affiliated Stations Alliance (NASA) warned in its request for a government investigation into the networks' muscle-flexing. NASA submitted a list of alleged violations of FCC rules and "improper network practices."
Alleged rules violations
- Each of the Big Four networks has unduly restricted the affiliates' ability to preempt network programming. During the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, CBS required affiliates to carry all of the events the network covered or lose rights to air Olympic games altogether. NBC tried unsuccessfully to impose similar restrictions last year during the first game of the American League Division Series by initially forbidding affiliates from preempting the game for the first 2000 Presidential debate. CBS has also pressured affiliates to clear its low-rated, two-hour The Early Show and refused repeated requests to permit local affiliates to air only one hour of the program so stations can offer local news.
- Fox has demanded complete control of affiliates' digital TV channels. In addition to violating the "right to refuse" and licensee control requirements, NASA says, Fox's digital mandate violates the prohibition on forced optioning of time to a network and the prohibition against exclusive affiliations that bar stations from accepting other programming.
- NBC, ABC and Fox are using affiliation agreements to interfere with station sales. NBC in 1999 scared away potential buyers for KRON-TV San Francisco by threatening to strip its affiliation if Chronicle Broadcasting sold to anybody else. New agreements required by ABC and Fox give the nets sole discretion to approve affiliation transfers.
Alleged 'Improper' practices
- The networks are collaborating on news coverage to the detriment of their affiliates. Botched election-night poll reports resulted from network cost-cutting moves, primarily reliance on the Voter News Service (VNS)-the joint venture of the Big Four, CNN and the Associated Press. Similarly, the Big Four created Network News Service in June to pool video footage and are pressuring affiliates to use it rather than independent services like CNN Newsource.
- The networks are "repurposing" programming, once exclusive to affiliates, on co-owned cable networks and Web sites. "Only CBS and ABC provide their affiliates with any exclusivity," the affiliates say. "CBS has asked to renegotiate this provision, and the exclusivity provided by ABC is highly qualified." The networks are also using their broadcast programming to promote related programming on cable networks. At the end of NFL games, for instance, ABC has urged viewers to turn to ESPN.
- The networks favor their own stations over affiliates. ABC rejected repeated affiliate requests to move Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. to use as a lead-in for local news, before relenting during the fourth and last week of sweeps, although ABC's WPVI-TV Philadelphia was permitted to delay the show by an hour a week earlier. The networks' other interests give them too much clout. NBC's investment in Paxson gives the network the ability to threaten affiliates that resist network demands with the prospect of moving the network programming to a Paxson station. - B.McC.