NBC said Friday it was in talks with Meredith Corp. to resolve charges that Meredith's WSMV-TV Nashville, Tenn., used compression technology to add extra commercial spots during network prime time in violation of its affiliation agreement.
The disclosure by the network followed quickly NBC Executive Vice President for Affiliate Relations John Damiano's conclusion that the station had added a 30-second spot to the Oct. 2 West Wing.
He had reviewed
tapes supplied by a Nashville journalist who had informally probed the station's practices.
Prior to the resolution talks, NBC had planned to investigate other recent network airings over WSMV-TV through monitoring services.
On Friday, a Meredith spokesman referred the matter to a company attorney who did not return calls by press time. Several Meredith officials—including Broadcast Group President Kevin O'Brien—had earlier in the week denied or pleaded ignorance to use of programming compression in Nashville or at other stations.
But several sources have told BROADCASTING & CABLE that, earlier this year, O'Brien made clear his intent to use the compression machines to add commercial spots for revenue gain, despite resistance from station management. Sources said the phone conferences included executives from across the Meredith group and were held at a time when memories of CBS's embarrassing experience with the technology were still fresh: Out-of-sync radio and TV broadcasts of a Pittsburgh Steelers game last year led to revelations that the "squeeze" was going on at KDKA-TV Pittsburgh and other group stations, a practice since ended (B&C, 11/5/01, page 14).
Use of California-based Prime Image's Time Machine can imperceptibly speed up programming and allow a station or network to add commercial messages, giving it an advantage over competitors.
Advertisers question the practice. Kathy Crawford, executive vice president of ad-buying firm Initiative Media, expressed concern over whether advertisements themselves were being compressed and whether the environment was becoming too cluttered for viewers' tastes.
"If we purchase 30 seconds of airtime, we expect to receive it," said Crawford, who investigated use of program compression for the American Association of Advertising Agencies this year and said she may "put it back on the table." The current ad environment, she noted, is already crowded by political advertising. Added inventory will produce "so much clutter it will drive the audience away. The broadcasters may kill the golden goose."
Nashville City Paper
Business Editor Jeremy Heidt discovered the practice in September when he noticed a significant difference between the West Wing
soundtrack he was hearing on WSMV-TV and the one he could hear while on a phone call to another market. He said he monitored the station in prime time for about three weeks and found it "regularly out of sync" with network broadcasts from other markets. He saw significant gaps as recently as last Tuesday.
BROADCASTING & CABLE monitored West Wing
last Wednesday at O'Brien's suggestion, via a phone call from Washington to Heidt in Nashville, and found no significant difference.
O'Brien denied the accusation prior to the disclosure of talks with NBC. Though saying that "we don't comment on race, religion, personnel issues or equipment," he added that charges were "not true. We're not altering any network feeds, and it's unfair to imply that we are."
O'Brien spoke with BROADCASTING & CABLE from Nashville, where he was meeting with WSMV-TV staffers to discuss personnel changes at the station.
Steve Ramsey, the veteran broadcast newsman who took over WSMV-TV only last month, seemed surprised by the accusation but said the station did not "comment on those kinds of issues." His predecessor Frank DeTillio also declined to discuss the matter with BROADCASTING & CABLE.
Viacom, which has several UPN and CBS affiliate agreements with Meredith, would not comment on whether it is monitoring Meredith's stations. A spokesman said, "We fully expect all our affiliates to uphold our broadcast agreements."
Sources confirmed that at least some Prime Image Time Machines were purchased by the group and delivered, but that did not necessarily mean they had been used in violation of programming agreements. A Time Machine can cost nearly $100,000, though, and TV executives say it's naïve to believe that broadcasters purchase them for any reason other than financial gain, although the machine can accommodate weather and news breaks as well as commercials.
According to Prime Image Vice President of Operations Jim Aldrich, four additional spots a day at a conservative $250 a spot would mean an additional $265,000 per year in ad revenue.