Stations' Rights

When Mike Scott, general manager of KYTV Springfield, Mo., heard about an upcoming episode of NBC's Fear Factor, he felt sick. And he thought viewers in his city of 400,000 households would feel the same way. So he nixed the Jan. 6, 2003, program, in which contestants ate horse rectums.

A few diehard fans pelted Scott with angry calls. But hell hath no fury like a network scorned.

NBC demonstrated its wrath in KYTV's next affiliation contract, which prohibited the station from yanking future Fear Factor
episodes—or any other shows—on grounds that they are unsuitable for the community. The only out? The episode would have to display a "substantial difference" from the series' general style and content. Since Fear Factor
is a weekly gross-out fest, KYTV would be hard-pressed to argue that any gag-inducing stunt is out of bounds.

It was one skirmish in the battle over preemption rights.

Beefs over preemption rights first boiled over in March 2001, when the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance (NASA), an umbrella group for ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates, filed a petition with the FCC. It demanded that the networks' attempts to deny affiliates' the right to reject programming be ruled illegal. Although not NASA members, Fox affiliates also joined the fight. CBS settled most of its disputes with NASA two years ago; the rest have not.

Enter the FCC.

In an approximation of states' right, affiliates may become empowered. If a ruling goes in their favor, they will have stronger rights to replace network programming with local news and sports or to yank it when they think a new show is too racy for their hometowns. At the NAB Show two weeks ago, FCC Chairman Michael Powell told broadcasters he intends to propose a solution this month. A vote could come in June.

Powell won't go on record, but FCC and network sources say he's likely to issue guidelines using examples from actual affiliation contracts. Winning the fight is critical for affiliates, says Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations and one of NASA's most active members. Although preemption rights are guaranteed by the FCC, affiliates rarely flex their muscle.

The reason is simple: fear. Frank says networks own so many stations they can threaten to terminate a station's affiliation agreement without risking much damage to overall ratings. "Because of that leverage, contracts are now written that we can't reject a show unless the format dramatically changes," Frank says.

Networks don't mind legitimate preemptions. But they take umbrage at bumping series for a local basketball game or election debate or to shield tender townsfolk from edgy fare.

Some network lobbyists contend that affiliates use preemptions to air more-profitable programming to meet end-of-quarter ad budgets. Affiliates replace network programming with syndicated shows so they don't have to share the ad time. One Fox affiliate is rumored to have replaced a new episode of The Simpsons
with a syndicated version the station owns.

Under standard affiliation agreements, the networks give each station a "basket" of preemptions.

But affiliates say preempting important local programs or dumping network shows they deem inappropriate shouldn't count against their quotas. As the license holders, it's their duty to serve the community interests.

Powell is loath to intervene. But he's under pressure from Congress to give local stations more power to reject raunchy shows. Privately, an aide says the chairman hopes NASA inks a deal with the networks. But the uproar over broadcast indecency may force his hand.