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Nothing much ventured

They met and talked but largely avoided the critical issues that will shape their future relationship. ABC executives gathered with their affiliates in a series of regional meetings last week in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles, and affiliates later characterized the meetings as positive if somewhat superficial. Key issues, such as the NASA filing and the "affiliate plan" weren't addressed.

The affiliate plan, struck two years ago with one more year to run, is the agreement under which affiliates pay $45 million a year to support ABC's National Football League broadcast rights in return for some extra inventory and limitations on network repurposing. John Rouse, vice president, affiliate relations, ABC-TV, said renewal talks on that plan would begin this summer. "Whether it's something we do on its own or as part of a bigger deal is yet to be determined," he said.

The sooner the better, said Bruce Baker, chairman of the ABC affiliate board. Baker noted that affiliates feel "a little bit disappointed at the inactivity" concerning substantive talks with the network about their ongoing relationship. "We keep asking the network about the future relationship and what the future [affiliate] contract structure is going to be like," he continued. "Quite frankly, we don't seem to be able to move it forward. Hopefully, at some point soon, we can begin some discussions beyond surface discussions about what it is they want from the relationship."

In closed-door sessions without network executives, affiliates expressed support for the NASA filing that outlines perceived abuses heaped upon affiliates by ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. The ABC affiliates agreed to ante up a total of $300,000 to support the legal case for that filing as have the NBC and CBS affiliates as well.

The two sides talked about high-definition television and the network's commitment to it, although affiliate and network sources had different interpretations of exactly what was said. Affiliate sources came away with the impression that the network made a definite commitment to create more productions next season, citing three new shows that ABC said would be produced in HDTV: Alias, Philly and Thieves.

But Rouse said ABC has made no firm commitment to do more HDTV next season. "One thing we did say is we're definitely looking toward possibilities in HDTV. And we'll make decisions on that soon." But Rouse did confirm that Monday Night Football would not be done in HDTV next season.

That's a cost issue. At $7 million per game, network executives told affiliates, presenting MNF in HDTV was prohibitively expensive without a sponsor like Panasonic, which produced HDTV MNF games for the network two seasons ago.

Executives also announced that they have decided to flip the regular and special celebrity editions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Monday will now air the special editions, and Thursday will offer the regular edition.

Separately, the affiliates elected Baker, who oversees Cox Broadcasting's affiliate stations, to a new two-year term as chairman of the board. Baker has been chairman for the past year, filling out the term of Pat Scott, who retired from Fisher Broadcasting. Young Broadcasting's Deborah McDermott was elected vice chairman.

Baker characterized last week's meetings as positive. But he hopes the network will switch back to one big meeting next year. "It was the right way to address the current economic situation this year," he said. "But there is a real benefit to getting everybody together in one place. There's a dialogue and energy and chemistry you just can't duplicate" in the regional sessions.