No Station Left Behind - Broadcasting & Cable

No Station Left Behind

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When Disney-ABC Networks chief Anne Sweeney stepped up to deliver the keynote at a B&C/National Association of Broadcasters lunch forum during last week’s NAB powwow in Las Vegas, she must have known she’d be facing a tough crowd.

Anne Sweeney has been masterful at carrying the message that the Mouse House is first among old-media behemoths to embrace the new-media future with bold initiatives. After announcing a trailblazing deal with Apple last October to offer ABC series for downloading on iTunes, Sweeney crashed the National Cable and Telecommunications Association show last month with news that the network would soon offer selected series for free, post-broadcast, on its Web site.

The deals were unassailable marketing coups that won plaudits from Wall Street, among others. But they haven't won Sweeney or her company any friends from the core NAB constituency: local broadcasters. If you'd thrown a quarter in any direction in that Las Vegas Hilton ballroom, odds are you'd have beaned at least five fuming station bosses.

Can you blame them? They'd just been told that the shows that once aired exclusively on their stations were now marching off to a variety of digital platforms, with no hint of a revenue model that cuts the stations in on the action.

Sweeney sensed as much. Referring to her network's deal with Apple, she acknowledged that “the move did not endear” ABC to most of the assembled. She suggested that it was time to stop saying “this is how we've always done it,” to dispense with the old models and proceed as if networks and their affiliates were beginning at square one.

Unfortunately, that did little to assuage the feeling amid the NAB crowd that ABC was leading the network pack away from a decades-old equation in which stations were vital partners that deserved respect and a regular fat check in the mail. After all, most ABC affiliates heard about the iTunes and ABC.com deals the day they were announced, and none expect to see a dime from either. Contrast that with the way Fox has been working with its affiliates to give them a piece of the online take—to the tune of 12.5%-25% of the revenue from prime time Fox shows that go online.

Sweeney is right when she says that the time is now for the industry to move quickly beyond the box—and beyond conventional business models—in order to bring content to the audience, whenever and wherever the audience wants it. She is absolutely on point when she says that the industry should regard piracy not as “something outside of any business practice” but as a “business model that competes the same way we do—through price, time to market, quality and distribution.” And when she says that distributing content via the Web, MP3 player or cellphone is “additive” to the business, broadcasters should not scoff.

But Sweeney and ABC must do more to reassure affiliates they won't be left high and dry. An adroit politician, Sweeney gave lip service to the notion of finding areas of new-media where network/affiliate partnerships are possible. “Together, we should examine new options as ways to expand our business,” she said. “We will continue our aggressive push forward and welcome our partners to work with us to find models that work for our business. We are in this together.”

But Sweeney gave little in the way of specifics on the where, when and how. She delivered her address and, like Elvis, left the building, thus giving no time for what surely would've been a heated post-keynote Q&A. Now is the time for all the networks to face their affiliates and have that debate, get specific and, à la Fox, attempt to figure out how everybody can share in the spoils.

When Disney-ABC Networks chief Anne Sweeney stepped up to deliver the keynote at a B&C/National Association of Broadcasters lunch forum during last week's NAB powwow in Las Vegas, she must have known she'd be facing a tough crowd.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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