The tensions between networks and affiliates were brought to the fore today by the news that Ed Ansin told NBC that he’s not going to run the new Jay Leno show at 10 p.m. on his WHDH Boston, preferring to air local news. And NBC lost no time in threatening to yank his affiliation. Both sides need to calm down.
Ed Ansin and NBC have some history — not the good kind.
Two decades ago, NBC yanked its affiliation from WSVN Miami, then Ansin’s only station, after having bought a station of its own in the market. In ending a partnership of more than 30 years, NBC gave Ansin a tough lesson in business loyalty.
But Ansin made out OK. He adopted the then-fledgling Fox network and filled the many suddenly empty hours with lively local news that became the model for other Fox affiliates.
By 1993, he was doing well enough to buy WHDH, the CBS affiliate in Boston. In an ironic twist, two years later, WHDH was forced to pick up the NBC affiliation in the course of the affiliation musical chairs of the time.
But Ansin’s wariness of NBC persisted. When Tribune put its CW affiliate in Boston, WLVI, on the market in 2006, Ansin snapped it up — some say out of fear that NBC would buy it and undercut him once again.
So, given the history, it doesn’t come as any big surprise that Ansin is prepared to take on NBC by refusing to air Jay Leno at 10 p.m. this fall so that he can do an hour of news.
“We feel we have a real opportunity with running the news at 10 p.m.,” Ansin told The Boston Globe. “We don’t think the Leno show is going to be effective in primetime.”
Ansin went on to blame NBC’s lousy 10 o’clock lead-in programming for wrecking the ratings of WHDH’s current newscast at 11.
In classic NBC fashion, NBC responded by threatening to dump WHDH as an affiliate and turn its Telemundo station in the market into an O&O.
Let’s all settle down.
NBC has to cool the rhetoric. A simple statement saying that it disagrees with Ansin’s decision and is working it through with Ansin would have sufficed for now. No more threats, please.
And Ansin has to give NBC and Jay a chance at 10.
There are good reasons for affiliates to preempt network programming (Fox’s Osbournes: Reloaded, for one), but denying the amiable Leno his shot in primetime in not among them.
Much has been said and written about the experiment. From where I sit, I would say the world is split on its prospects.
Some think it’s a good idea: the Leno variety hour will give NBC what all the networks have been lacking for years now — a solid core of strong original programming day after day after day. It will also allow NBC to funnel its dwindling resources into improving the other two primetime hours.
Others see the move as a cost-cutting retreat and the clear sign of the end times of broadcast television.
I count myself among the former group. A talk/variety show can still work in primetime, assuming the host is a likeable figure like Jay rather than a polarizing one like Rosie O’Donnell. And in crafting the show, NBC is even taking input from the affiliates in trying to make it more than Tonight an Hour and a Half Earlier.
Plus, I just can’t see Leno falling flat on his face. He’s as hardworking and as competitive as any man in show business. As he has in the past, he’ll be a tireless promoter. If Ansin wants him in Boston to sell the show, I’m sure he’ll come.
What I can say with absolute certainly is that nobody knows what will happen this fall.
If it works, NBC will have turned around its fortunes in a single stroke and Jeff Zucker will have finally earned his pay. The late news of every NBC affiliate in the country will finally get some help.
And if it bombs, Ansin will still have his chance at 10 and NBC will be hard pressed to deny him. In fact, every NBC affiliate should be thinking about news at 10 as a fall back. I haven’t heard much in the way of a Plan B from NBC. Five hours a week of primetime programming will not be easy to replace.
The spat between Ansin and NBC is just one more example of the tension that colors the ever-evolving relationship between affiliate and network.
Another was Randy Bongarten’s blast at the networks’ notion of bypassing affiliates and going direct to cable. Such a move would be a “decision of inestimable stupidity,” he said at a SNL Kagan conference in New York this week.
Having not seen the networks’ modeling on a bypass, I cannot say how stupid it is. I do know that every time the networks bring up it, it irks the affiliates who feel the networks float the idea from time to time just to keep them in line.
Affiliates were upset by a Wall Street Journal article last February about local TV based, in part, on CBS’s Les Moonves saying that bypass was “a very interesting proposition.” The affiliates feel the comment, magnified by the Journal, undermines their efforts to convince investors that they aren’t dinosaurs and persuade lenders that they can still be trusted.
There are plenty of other issues that will keep affiliate group meetings and negotiations between station groups and networks lively, if not downright contentious, most notably program exclusivity (the networks seem determine to distribute their programming on every new media platform they can find) and reverse compensation in a variety of forms.
But I don’t want to overstate the negative. Yeah, there is tension. But there are also a whole lot of smart people on both sides that understand the value they bring to each other and that want to work together to make sure that the broadcast networks continue to have the best of all possible programming.
At the same conference Bongarten knocked the bypass idea, two other prominent station group heads — Fisher’s Colleen Brown and LIN’s Vince Sadusky — expressed gratitude to the networks for supporting them in their retrans battles with cable.
If networks and their affiliates are going to get to the other side of this recession with their businesses intact and positioned to grow, they are going to have to do it together.
Among many other things, that means that when a network schedules a primetime show with one of the biggest TV stars of the past two decades, you air it and ask questions later.
By the last count, Boston has 2,409,080 TV homes. Jay Leno deserves at shot at every single one.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at [email protected].