The ever-evolving bond between Fox and its affiliates, which had become simpatico after a chaotic redefining of the relationship a few years back, is bubbling with a bit of unrest again. The network’s weak fall primetime performance, coupled with a startling divorce with a longtime affiliate, has injected some anxiety back into the relationship. “There’s definitely some concern among affiliates,” says one veteran GM who asked to not be named. “I don’t think everyone’s happy with Fox.”
B&C contacted a dozen affiliates to get their take on Fox these days. What emerged was disappointment with last fall, deep concern over affiliation agreements and optimism for the midseason. “The fall was not good for Fox and not good for us either,” says Bill Lamb, WDRB Louisville president/GM. “But Fox has a whole lot more at stake than even we do. They’ve got a lot of people working on it.”
A Fox representative said: “We have a tremendous affiliate body and we are grateful for all their support.”
Fox’s aggressive retrans demands met stiff resistance from affiliates a few years ago, though many ended up saluting the network for pushing them to extract higher retrans fees.
Fall is typically not strong for Fox, but 2012’s was off more than usual. The network’s average total primetime audience was down 24% from the previous year, while 18- to-49 viewership slid 25%, prompting Kevin Reilly, Fox Entertainment chairman, to tell the crowd at TCA last month: “We all screw up. Look at my fall.”
Also disquieting for affiliates was Fox’s decision to split with WCCB Charlotte, an affiliate since 1986, following its Jan. 28 acquisition of a CW-MyNetworkTV duopoly in DMA No. 25. Similar moves may follow. “If I’m a Fox affiliate with an NFC [football team in the market],” says one Fox station GM, “I’d be keeping my eyes open.”
WCCB will join the likes of KTRV Boise (Idaho) and KSFX (now KOZL) Springfield (Mo.) among those divorced from Fox in the past 18 months; ABC, CBS and NBC have not taken that tack in recent years. Fox GMs soberly note that the network calls the shots. “It’s always surprising when it happens, but it’s part of the affiliation agreement,” says Mark Metzger, VP/GM at KLSR Eugene (Ore.). “You just hope it’s not you.”
Amid the concern, there is some optimism. American Idol is back, and while some Fox GMs note the show is down 20%-25% over last year, it continues to win its time slot handily. And rookie drama The Following is building a following. “There wasn’t a lot to celebrate in the fall, but I think the second season is good for all of us,” says Lamb.
Steve Pruett, Fox affiliates board chairman, urges patience. “You’re No. 1 for eight years, and suddenly, because of one [ratings] book, you’re a schmuck,” he jokes. “Fox has convinced the affiliates board, and body, that it is taking the appropriate action to fill holes and shore up existing shows.”
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