They used to be late-spring affiliate boondoggles-mini-vacations you could write off as a business expense. But over the past several years, the annual affiliate gatherings of the Big Four networks have evolved into shorter, much more businesslike affairs.
Last week, however, NBC went a step further and canceled its annual meeting altogether, saying it is time to "replace this anachronistic practice with a communications strategy that better serves all of us." That's the way NBC-TV President Randy Falco and network affiliate relations head John Damiano put it in a letter sent to affiliates on Feb. 8.
And the situation at Fox is unclear. Affiliate sources say the network has considered canceling its spring meeting, too. Fox says it's still deciding whether to do a meeting or a satellite video conference.
The news didn't come as a big surprise to affiliates. "I think they're doing what everybody else is doing," says Rick Lipps, vice president, general manager, KWWL-TV Waterloo, Iowa. "If they don't all go away this year, they'll go away next year."
Well, maybe next year. ABC is planning to hold its annual confab at the Disney Adventure Park in Anaheim, Calif., while CBS is planning a return to Las Vegas.
Last year, both ABC and NBC had half-day meetings in New York that were held at the same time the networks unveiled their fall schedules to advertisers.
But the stay-at-home trend started before NBC's action. Last month, The WB convened a nationwide live satellite feed to update affiliates, instead of an in-person presentation at the NATPE convention as it had in previous years.
NBC's annual conference, which in previous years was more celebration and dog-and-pony show (NBC held three-day gatherings twice in Maui, Hawaii, in the 1980s), will be replaced with a short meeting at the NAB convention and two regional meetings later in the year. Those will focus on one or two key issues, with those agendas ultimately set with feedback from affiliates, NBC said.
In their letter, the executives said the restructured meetings were designed to improve communication between the network and stations. It "does not represent a disengagement from the affiliate body on NBC's part," according to the letter.
And it's not just about costs, although cost is a factor: "Given our financial goals and the current uncertain economic environment, we thought it would be best to replace this annual gathering with alternatives that enable us to focus, with new intensity, on growing our respective businesses."
Bruce Baker, executive vice president, Cox Broadcasting, says networks and affiliates need to have "productive and candid dialogue" with each other to keep the relationships on track. How networks decide to do that "is their prerogative."