Washington, we have a problem


The big buzz in Washington last week was the sound of 600-plus network affiliates hitting the panic button. NASA (not the space agency, but the National Affiliated Stations Alliance), representing affiliates of the Big Three networks and some from Fox, who have seen their compensation wither and their leverage in affiliation renegotiations shrink, asked the FCC last week to intervene to fix a network/affiliate relationship that it says is broken.

"The networks have recently acquired so much power," said NASA, "that they have disrupted the historic network-affiliate equilibrium, violated the [Communications] Act and contravened commission rules and policies."

The petition to the FCC pulled out all the stops: Voter News Service foul-ups, debate coverage versus baseball, repurposing of programming, cracking down on pre-emptions, threats to yank affiliations. They even included a letter from Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association suggesting that more powerful networks would run roughshod over Jerry's Kids.

What, no accusations of dog-kicking?

Clearly, some affiliates feel their hands are tied and their backs are against the wall, and some perhaps feel that they are blindfolded and on their last cigarette. They may have a point.

The networks have certainly been playing hardball in affiliation negotiations. Whether that hardball has come down within or outside the lines is a call the FCC is apparently empowered to make. In that sense, the stations are within their rights to ask the FCC for a ruling. But be careful what you wish for. Inviting the FCC to rethink its deregulation of the industry is like inviting the fox into the chicken coop.

You usually don't get to choose the victims. Such a call for reregulation or stricter enforcement could snowball. The networks might choose to move their programming to cable, as some have threatened, and give local stations more localism and independence than they were bargaining for.

NASA says that it is trying to preserve localism and local control and that the alternative is to become common carriers of the network signal. Rather than asking for more regulation of the industry, however, they should be working for less in the area of newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership.

That would help many station groups to bulk up in those local markets that they are so eager to serve.

While we would like to believe that localism is the driving force behind broadcasters' desire to have everything their way, from the digital conversion to must-carry to you-name-it, it is just possible that NASA's laundry list of injustices is a stalking horse.

The real effort may be to paint the networks as mega-merged monoliths and thus prevent a Republican-controlled Washington from lifting the cap on station ownership. The timing of the petition-not long after the courts threw out the cable caps and called into question the broadcast ownership limits-may be more than coincidence. That timing could also have to do with the installation of a new FCC chairman disinclined to keep such caps on the books after they have outlived their usefulness.

It will take a while to sort out just what happened last week, but it's hard not to see it as a declaration of war. Maybe Fox and NBC shouldn't have canceled those affiliate meetings after all.