Upfronts 2009: NBC Creates Three Tiers of Affiliate Relationships

Filed at 3:51 p.m. EST on May 20, 2009

NBC outlined three levels of network-station relationships during its meeting with affiliates in New York Wednesday.

Sticking with an Olympic theme after its success in Beijing, affiliates can opt for a Bronze, Silver or Gold relationship--each designed to enhance the synergy between network and affiliate, stressed NBC Television Network & Media Works President John Eck and NBC Affiliate Board Chairman Michael Fiorile.

The Bronze tier resembles the typical relationship of today, with NBC feeding network fare to the stations. Silver ramps up the digital synergies between the two parties, while Gold kicks it up another level, such as some local revenue opportunities with NBC on cable systems. The higher-level partnerships might mean a station partnering with the network on a multicast channel or mobile application. Eck says the tier concept is a “two-way street”, with the affiliates encouraged to provide their input.

Fiorile says the tier system has the board’s support. “I think it sounds like a great idea,” he said.

With some 150 representatives from the affiliate community assembled at 30 Rock’s Studio 8H, the meeting kicked off with oratory from NBC Universal President/CEO Jeff Zucker, who was unequivocal in his support of the long-term network-affiliate relationship.

“Let me set the record straight once and for all,” said Zucker. “Standing here on the stage of one of the most famous broadcast studios in the world--created for radio, rebuilt over the years for television, then color TV, then digital broadcasting--let me be as clear as I can be: We are not abandoning the business of broadcast network television. We are not going direct to cable. We are renewing affiliation agreements. And we are going to be in business together for a long, long time.”

Fiorile was heartened by Zucker’s words. “He set a very positive and productive tone to the meeting,” he says. “People felt good to hear that from Jeff.”

Of course, Jay Leno, star of the nightly Jay Leno Show come fall, dominated the meeting too. Leno was the headline act in a lineup of NBC comedy stars last night, taking at the stage at 10 p.m.—the same slot he’ll occupy in the fall.

Leno, who’s always made an effort to reach out to the affiliates, met with the NBC affiliates board for about an hour Tuesday, which struck Fiorile as significant. “He’s very forthcoming in his interest in making it work,” Fiorile says. “He spoke a lot about the importance of the affiliates.”

Zucker reminded the affiliates that NBC owns a clutch of big stations and also is keenly interested in seeing Jay send a mass audience into late news. “Having Jay Leno lead into your late local news five nights a week will be good for all of us--NBC, our affiliates, our advertisers--and most of all, our viewers,” he said. “We are paying an incredible amount of attention to its format, to make sure that we maximize the audience flow straight into your late news, and into Conan after that.”

The board shared findings with the affiliates from an extensive study it commissioned on how best to keep Leno viewers tuned in for late news. NBC had its own Leno-related study, and both Fiorile and Eck said the two studies’ findings were similar. Fiorile said the network has responded favorably to the board’s Leno-related requests. The parties have agreed on three windows within the Leno program designed to promote the upcoming late news. They’ll be of varying length, and will occur in the beginning, middle and toward the end of the program.

“They’re three great opportunities to promote local news,” says Eck.

Indeed, the meeting seemed woefully short on ill will or mistrust. Commented Eck: “There was great dialogue between the network and the affiliates.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.