Scoffing at the notion that their affiliates are being bullied, the Big Four networks last week urged the FCC to revive a dormant plan to relax government rules on relations between the major TV-program suppliers and the independently owned stations that air their programming.
The networks' comments were their first official response to a petition filed in March calling on the FCC to put an end to what many affiliates see as the networks' increasing abuse of their leverage over TV stations.
The Network Affiliated Stations Alliance (NASA) contends that the nets have repeatedly broken FCC rules by denying affiliates the right to reject programming, interfering with station sales and forcing affiliates to cede much of the extra programming capacity that will be generated by the switch to digital transmissions.
The networks counter that NASA recognizes only their rights vis-à-vis the nets and not their reciprocal responsibility in the relationship. "A network cannot operate, let alone take the investment risks that networks necessarily take, if every significant programming decision must be made by 200 independent editors," ABC told the FCC, noting that, unless the networks can guarantee audience share by demanding that stations air their programming, advertisers will be reluctant to buy time and provide revenue needed to keep the net running.
The nets denied that they have the power to dominate stations. The evidence: The affiliates still enjoy a "massive" increase in compensation from the networks negotiated in 1994.
The networks also urged the FCC to cast a skeptical eye on the affiliates' claim that network demands hurt opportunities for locally generated programming. Many affiliates, they say, make a regular practice of rejecting network programming, not for local shows but for infomercials, syndicated game shows and reruns. For example, Post-Newsweek's WPLG(TV) Miami airs paid programming on hair restoration and other products instead of ABC's educational Doug
on Saturday mornings, and Sinclair's WEAR-TV Pensacola, Fla., airs Hollywood Squares
on Sundays instead of World News Tonight.
NASA attorney Wade Hargrove said the nets are asking the FCC to violate communications law and 50 years of regulatory and court rulings by taking into account content. The affiliates' aim is simple, he said: "We want to exercise the right to say no without any fear of retribution."
Network officials say NASA will regret asking the FCC to step in. The group already has twice amended its request to regulators—by clarifying that no fines are being sought and by dropping its request for new rules that would prevent other actions that violated the spirit of fair play, if not the law, such as forcing affiliates to rely on pooled network voter polls and "repurposing" programming on network-owned cable and WEB sites instead of airing them on affiliates.
What's more, the nets say, five years ago, the FCC was on the verge of relaxing the very rules NASA wants enforced. The agency backed off under pressure from lawmakers, but today's opportunity may be too hard for the FCC's new deregulatory chairman to resist. Fox officials warned, "NASA has unwittingly placed the network/affiliate rules themselves under the spotlight of public-interest scrutiny."