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Live Together, Die Alone

I was having a quiet dinner at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville in Vegas last week, or as quiet a dinner as you can have in a joint where women in bikinis dance in a giant margarita glass to Buffett’s various odes to alcohol. As I bit into my pulled pork sandwich (I was secretly proud to order neither a margarita nor the cheeseburger in paradise), the sound system played U2’s “With Or Without You.” I can’t live…with or without you wailed the chorus, as a woman in pirate garb strutted past on stilts.

The song broke through Sin City’s sensory clutter for two reasons: It was a pleasant break from Buffett’s sun-baked oeuvre, and the words were particularly fitting on the heels of the affiliate meetings that had gone down hours before at the National Association of Broadcasters conference.

Yes, all eyes were on the Fox meeting at the Hilton. Even in this age of network-affiliate dysfunction, the Fox family stands out for its brawling over the new terms of reverse compensation. The meeting did not disappoint: what was to run about 2½ hours took four. A pair of guards stood sentry like they were guarding a room of world leaders. What affiliates called the “elephant in the room” was addressed head-on, with Fox brass absorbing repeated body blows about how the new retrans-sharing demands would put the locals out of business. The mood brightened when one affiliate feigned apoplexy as he stood up, waited a beat, then broke up the room when he asked how the network could dismiss toothsome American Idol contestant Pia Toscano. But the barrage from irate affiliates then continued.

Affiliates on their way out avoided reporters like Barry Bonds leaving Burton Federal Courthouse. “We helped build that network,” allowed one. “Most everyone agrees with [sharing retrans], but their approach is odd.”

Fox affiliates board chairman Brian Brady, whose incendiary rallying cry to affiliates in the face of the network’s rules of engagement a few months ago was full of venom, went with a muted approach this time. Asked to comment on the proceedings, Brady grimaced, clenched his teeth, and forced a smile. “It was a very open and honest dialogue,” Brady said, in that way you tell your coworker his cringe-worthy improv “comedy” show was entertaining.

It was many hours later that Fox brass, reconvened in Los Angeles, issued joint statements from the main adversaries, Fox affiliate sales president Mike Hopkins and Brady, in which each professed his side’s dedication to the partnership. Hopkins spoke of the “incredibly powerful connection that only local stations provide,” while Brady’s statement said the 200-plus affiliates and Fox “are aligned in our goals to create a material dual revenue stream business for both the stations and the network.”

Statements issued from corporate headquarters are just that, but it was nonetheless encouraging to see the warring factions, quite literally, on the same page. The network-affiliate model isn’t some quickie marriage hatched out of the Graceland Wedding Chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard ($199 includes “three-rose nosegay and rose boutonniere,” if you’re in the market). I’ve yet to find anyone who thinks there’s a better business model than hitmaking networks on the coasts, and a few hundred affiliates in between who complement the network fare with local programming to create—like the Graceland Chapel—a pretty comprehensive package.

“We totally support and need a very healthy affiliate body,” CBS President/CEO Leslie Moonves told broadcasters at NAB. “But programs are very expensive and we need help. Af! liates acknowledge that.”

Moonves, never one to pass up on a thinly veiled shot at a rival, said CBS—unlike another network—is not threatening to strip its partner stations of their affiliations. Affiliates of all networks know they have to kick in some cash so that programming can continue to dominate amidst the higher-quality fare on pay television. ABC brass acknowledged affils would pick up some of the tab if Disney landed the Olympics. And Fox has a potential home run in The X Factor this fall; affiliates, # own to L.A. for a sneak peek at the show in late February, were darn near blown away by what they saw.

But turning a white-hot concept into an Idol-level colossus in this Vegas-esque, sensory-saturated era has to be a full team effort, and it has to start now. As U2 suggests, it may be near impossible to work with your partner—but it’s better than the alternative. After all, a Vegas divorce (“When I Do Becomes I Don’t,” offers Nevada Divorce out in Reno) turns out to be a lot more costly than the wedding.

Inside the Network-Affiliates Meetings

B&C takes you behind the scenes from the closed-door sessions at NAB
CW: Young Net Feels Grown Up At Positive Coffee Meeting
NBC: Comcast Making Earnest Investment In Primetime
ABC: Banking On Paul Lee
CBS: Talking News And Hoops
Fox: Guess What They Talked About?

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