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Fox Affiliates Relieved Conan Not Coming

Managers at Fox affiliates largely treated the news that Conan O'Brien is moving to TBS, and not their own late-night air, with a sigh of relief. As rumors of Fox installing an O'Brien-hosted late night show picked up, the affiliates were mostly pessimistic on the concept, as they're locked into syndication contracts in that time slot, or air local news, or both. Both news and syndicated shows offer a more lucrative revenue model than a network show.

"We're a local TV station," said KPTV-KPDX Portland VP/General Manager Patrick McCreery. "We would've hated to give [late local news] up, and leave the people who want that out in the wind."

The news of O'Brien's shift to TBS was the talk of the NAB-RTDNA show in Las Vegas (click here for complete coverage). Most broadcast leaders got the news after exiting the Las Vegas Hilton following NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith's opening address. One exec at a Fox affiliate uttered a hearty "Amen!" upon hearing the news.

There was substantial talk of Fox announcing an O'Brien show at the network's upfront presentation next month in New York, but the network would've had to do some considerable legwork to get affiliates on board. "I never thought it was a good fit on Fox," says Prime Cities Broadcasting President John Tupper, a former Fox affiliates board chairman. "It represented a lot of economic problems for affiliates who run syndication at that time, and do pretty well with it."

Fox affiliates chairman Brian Brady was not available for comment on short notice. The Fox affiliates board meets today in Vegas, and the affiliates body meets tomorrow.

Many in the local TV world view today's development as a win for local programming.

"It just didn't make financial sense for a lot of affiliates, especially the strong affiliates," says WGHP Greensboro President/General Manager Karen Adams. "Displacing heritage local news and high profile off-network programming--there wasn't anything about it that made financial sense for some stations."

When O'Brien was still in play, many Fox affiliate managers were doubtful the former Tonight Show host had the broad appeal to carry a late night talker, though several acknowledged that it may be some time before another A-list host hits the free agent market. The affiliate managers are curious how a new O'Brien show will affect their viewing at 11 p.m.; most seeming to think their syndicated shows and local news will hold up fine. "I don't think Conan is much threat to Fox on TBS," says Tupper.

Adams agrees. "The cable households just aren't anywhere near the broadcast households," she says.

If there's any disappointment among Fox affiliates with today's news, it's that another marquee broadcast brand has made the move to cable. NAB President Smith's address this morning brought up the issue of retransmission consent revenue, and urged networks and affiliates to work together on the issue. "There's never been a more important time for us to be together in this Association," he said.

Broadcasters say retrans is essential for them to continue to air big-draw programming that's increasingly shifting to cable and its subscription model. "There's no question that there's a continuation of program migration," says Tupper. "Programs will follow the money. More and more of this will continue to happen as long as there's a wide gap between cable and broadcast [in terms of subscription revenue.]"

The Conan rumors seemingly laid to rest, the Fox affiliates said they'll continue to concentrate on the programming matters within their control. "We'll continue to do what it is we do, which is offer viewers compelling programming," said LIN Executive V.P. Scott Blumenthal. "We wish Conan luck and we'll see what happens."