The Ethics of Affiliation Grabs

My cover story in the new issue, "Careful What You WISH For", touches upon a sensitive—and pretty compelling—issue. Should station groups consider taking an affiliation away from a fellow local broadcaster? Who are they more obligated to—shareholders, or their broadcast peers? And grabbing another station's affiliation—while it's a short-term boon for business, is it a savvy move in the long term?

The idea was hatched in a quiet Times Square saloon. I was interviewing Perry Sook, Nexstar president and CEO, for his profile that went in our Hall of Fame issue (Sook was inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame last month). We went there not because either of us needed a cocktail while the TVB Forward conference was going on next door, but because it was dead-quiet and I could record the audio. 

Sook had been burned by affiliation switches in the past, when he was fighting with Fox over reverse retrans terms. He said both stations lose when a switch goes down, and the network wins. He said the only reason why such switches are viable options for networks is because station groups are willing to engage in discussions about grabbing another's affiliation. “These swaps are like MMA cage matches. One of us knocks the other out, so they win," said Sook. "But the real winner is the promoter. In this case, that’s the network.”

But it was partially hatched back in August, when CBS and Tribune announced they were partnering in Indianapolis—at the expense of LIN's longtime CBS affiliate, WISH. That switch is official at the stroke of midnight December 31. 

So, in short, is it an ethical transgression to grab another's affiliation? Or is it, simply, business, and everyone involved is a grown-up?

There are strong cases to be made on both sides. 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.