Conan O’Brien’s bombshell announcement that he was moving to TBS, not Fox, represented a number of compelling developments in the TV world. Perhaps most notably, it was another broadcast giant heading over to cable. More subtly, it revealed the increasing might that affiliates are accruing these days. While the Fox affiliates acknowledged how rare it was for an established late-night performer to be available, the large majority preferred to keep their more lucrative late news and syndicated programming instead.
While Fox was keen to land O’Brien, network sources, who were not authorized to speak on the record, shared that Conan-to-Fox cratered because it simply did not work for the bulk of the affiliate body (as well as News Corp.’s syndication division). The notion was seconded by one Fox affiliate manager after the NAB Show in Las Vegas last week: “I guess I’d have to say that the affiliates put enough pressure on to negate that deal.”
Some affiliates, who’ve long felt like flyover-state nuisances in the presence of the mighty network, believed the Conan deal would happen despite their protests. When it died, many were reminded of the NBC affiliates rising up in protest of The Jay Leno Show’s weak performance, which of course played a major role in NBC scrapping its mega-publicized primetime experiment. Affiliates everywhere are pleased to see what seems like more consideration from the networks these days.
“I honestly believe the Fox network did a very good job of reaching out and talking to all the affiliates about the pluses and minuses of a Conan show,” says Raycom President/CEO Paul McTear, who counts six Fox stations, including WBRC Birmingham, in his group. “They were really sensitive to the needs of their affiliates and O&O group, and that’s the way a productive network-affiliate relationship works.”
Much has been made of the growing rancor in the network-affiliate relationship, and the possibility that the broadcast networks will someday—perhaps someday soon—bypass stations and take their programming directly to viewers via cable, the Web and wireless. But it’s becoming clearer that networks and their stations, amidst the dysfunctional present and cloudy future, make a pretty good team.
“Clearly the networks have voted on the model we have,” says ABC affiliates board chairman/McGraw-Hill Broadcasting President Darrell Brown. “Being connected to the local stations helps networks; they recognize the value in localism.”
The networks appear to agree. “We very much value the relationships with our affiliates,” said CBS in a statement.
All agree that this decades-old model is changing each day. Whereas many stations once received compensation for airing a network’s shows, the local outlets are increasingly asked to help foot the bill for development. McTear speaks of something resembling a syndication model emerging between networks and affiliates as the latter are pressed to share retrans spoils, often as part of their affiliate agreements. “They provide programs that we pay for,” he says.
Some affiliates are chafing at the demands, but most seem to think it’s the price they must pay to keep big-tent events on their air. Surely both parties have often pondered life without the other, and neither appears to like the view. “There are still a number of things the network and the stations work on together,” Brown says. “They would lose the value of promotion the affiliates offer, the local connection, the local news that leads into their content.”
And for all the talk of what sort of leadin stations get from the network’s prime, Brown notes that the stations’ local news provides an essential entrée to the network’s shows—be it the lucrative morning and evening news programs, or the late-night funnymen.
Of course, it’s not all peace and love between networks and their affiliate bodies; nor will it ever be. One smallmarket NBC affiliate manager was hardly singing “Love Me Tender” to the Peacock in Las Vegas last week; he said he’d appreciate some long-awaited hits in primetime, and a headsup from NBC on the rare occasions when its news talent turns up in his market.
But even the more frustrated affiliates believe their prospects for the brightest future possible can best be reached by linking arms with the partner network. And as their concerted opposition to primetime Jay and late-night Conan has shown, the affiliate bodies are not to be taken lightly anymore.
“I think the [affiliate] model is stronger than it’s ever been,” says CBS affiliates board chairman/Nexstar Executive VP/Co-COO Tim Busch. “It’s a very successful form of distribution, and a great way to interact with viewers across America.”
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