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ABC Reaches Out to Affils Online

ABC is reaching out to affiliates irked by its aggressive delivery of network content on digital platforms. The network is rolling out a trial in which five local stations’ Web sites will link to ABC show downloads.  

The stations participating in the two-month test are: WISN Milwaukee, a Hearst-Argyle station; KABC Los Angeles, an owned-and-operated outlet; WFTV Orlando (Cox Broadcasting); WATE Knoxville (Young Broadcasting); and WFAA Dallas-Fort Worth (Belo Corp).

The new ABC local test looks like an olive branch to stations. The participating stations will not stream the video, but rather link to ABC’s Web site. So far, WISN, KABC and WFAA have prominent banner ads on their Web sites that take viewers to the ABC download page.

 “Part of goal is to show the strength and the value of local sites,” says Frank Biancuzzo, WISN-TV president and general manager.  “Strong ABC affiliates bring in stronger ratings. We believe it is the same with our Web sites.”  

““We are open to exploring ways to work with our local broadcast affiliates as we experiment in the digital media arena,” John Rouse, ABC’s senior vice president, affiliate relations, said in a statement.  “Having these affiliates participate in, and share research from, this experiment will help us to best determine a successful model for all of our businesses as they continue to evolve.”

The news of the test comes after Disney/ABC Networks chief Anne Sweeney, speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, recognized that affiliates were unhappy with the network’s new media tests but encouraged them to break away from old distribution models. 

Earlier this week, Hearst-Argyle CEO David Barrett, who operates the largest group of ABC affiliates, shot back, saying he was “put off by the condescending rhetoric that we get from some of the networks about how we got our heads in the sand about the business.”

“"I am dismayed that ABC continues to take the position that the affiliates are stuck in the past," Barrett said on a conference call with investors. "We are as aggressive as ABC and Disney in terms of recognizing the potential of digital media. We’ve had a Web site business in place that’s been growing for the past seven years."  

With the new trial, participating stations will now have incentive to promote the free downloads of Lost, Desperate Housewives, Alias and Commander in Chief.  There are also advertising opportunities. On WFAA’s Web site, for example, users are directed to an ad before the ABC download page comes up. Increased local traffic could also encourage more advertisers to buy onto a stations’ Web page.

ABC has been at odds with its affiliates over new media deals since the network’s move last fall to sell episodes of some big-ticket shows on iTunes.

That rift grew deeper when ABC said in April that it would initiate a two-month trial, currently under way, to stream free episodes of several hit shows. Affiliates have said they would like to share in revenue and also have the opportunity to promote and market the shows to help their own Web sites.  The local trial, Biancuzzo says, is one way to quantify that marketing value. “You’ll get a sense of traffic drawn nationally and what the local affiliate will be able to bring to it,” he said. “We are going to learn a lot from this.”