CBS Is Glad All Over

CBS affiliates heard plans for the network's new multicasting channel at their annual meeting last week and batted around a few sore subjects with the network brass. But pumped-up affiliates and network executives mainly gloated about the network's strong first-place finish in all the major ratings categories this past season.

That includes its convincing Thursday-night victory over the once-dominant NBC and winning the coveted adults 18-49 banner for its regular entertainment programming (Fox took the overall crown with championship baseball and the Super Bowl thrown into the mix).

CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves told the 520 attendees, including affiliate general managers and sales executives, “We have some celebrating to do.” He traced how, since his arrival in 1996 when CBS was in disarray and its demographics hopelessly old, that CBS turned itself around. “It seems like only yesterday that Angela Lansbury was the hottest woman on CBS,” Moonves quipped, referring to the star of the old CBS hit series Murder, She Wrote.

The new motto “You get it all at CBS” could also be applied to the network's annual general affiliates meeting—it's the only one of the Big Four that still holds such confabs—last week in Las Vegas.

But there were a few tense moments.

During a closed-door meeting, affiliates expressed frustration because, they said, CBS wants some of the cash proceeds that they could reap from playing hardball with cable operators during upcoming retransmission-consent negotiations. The affiliates intend to piggyback on the all-cash retrans deals that CBS has been seeking from cable operators, thanks to its strong competitive position.

In exchange for getting a piece of the action, affiliate board members say CBS has indicated that it would be willing to support them by not shifting affiliation agreements to other stations in their markets.

But CBS said the affiliates weren't getting the right message. “That is a misunderstanding,” said CBS-TV Executive Vice President Martin D. Franks, who oversees the network's spectrum, legislative and content areas. “Our clear intention is to support our affiliates in the hope that they will have successful retransmission negotiations, not to hinder them in any way.”

And privately, CBS insiders termed the affiliates' fears a “red herring.” They say the network only wants financial assurances that it would be reimbursed if a cable operator in limited circumstances pulled an affiliate off its systems during a protracted retrans fight.

Franks, meanwhile, sought affiliate support for the launch of a “high-quality” digital entertainment channel CBS hopes to beam into 20 million homes within the next six months. The channel Franks envisions would comprise primarily “making-of” footage, essentially the sort of movie or TV promotional pieces providing “behind-the-scenes” glimpses of series, TV stars and athletes. It would compete with NBC's weather and ABC News' multi-platform offerings.

An affiliate board member, calling the establishment of a digital channel the affiliates' “No. 1 issue,” claimed CBS had been “dragging its feet” on the issue, speculating that the network was going slowly until (and if) parent Viacom splits itself into two companies, as Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone has proposed. (Under that plan, CBS would be separated from Viacom's cable networks.)

“That way, they no longer have to worry about protecting or aiding their cable brethren” during retrans negotiations, an affiliate board member reasons.

But Franks strongly denied the allegation. “This has absolutely zero to do with our cable cousins,” he said.

He also heatedly disputed the contention that CBS has been slow with its multicasting efforts, saying it's a top priority for the network. In fact, Franks says, CBS has been working closely with many affiliates over the past months on formulating alternative spectrum proposals.

He thinks the startup channel would be inexpensive and would be more enticing to cable operators and many affiliates than a second weather or news station in a market. The CBS channel, he says, could give CBS O&Os and affiliates a toe in the cable door, even if the networks fail in their efforts to get mandatory digital coverage for broadcasters.

Affiliates praised CBS for providing solid 10 p.m. dramas that deliver a sizeable audience to their newscasts and were encouraged that new Tuesday-night drama Close to Home comes from executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose crime procedurals (including all the CSI series) helped transform the network—and boost affiliates' newscasts.

But affiliates argue there is too much ad “clutter” in the two-minute block leading into their late news, fearing that the ad and promo inventory puts them at a competitive disadvantage with ABC and NBC.

Preston Farr, CBS senior VP of affiliate relations, disagreed—to a point. He said that, although the network found that there is virtually no clutter on ABC, NBC has more commercial clutter than CBS in the last five minutes of its prime time programming.

Despite the differences, he said, CBS found no discrepancies in audience retention among the three networks. As the largest station operator, he said, CBS definitely would reduce clutter if it would help.

The meeting was not without its lighter moments. CBS PR czar Gil Schwartz parodied Johnny Cash and folk singers. To Bob Dylan's “Blowin' in the Wind,” he sang, “How many days must Bob Schieffer be on, before we can make up our mind?” He lampooned the 60 Minutes II National Guard flub, the end of Everybody Loves Raymond—and the trade press.