TV Wars: the affiliates strike back

Posted: Mar 14, 2001 12:00 AM
The great ongoing American political struggle has been, and probably always will be, between supporters of expansive federal power and those who believe that when government action is necessary, it should, with rare exceptions, be limited and localized. These days, an analogous struggle is developing in the television industry, with major-network-affiliated stations playing the part of local government, and the major networks the role of the feds. Last week, the stations, which think the networks have been shoving them around, pushed back. On March 8, the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance (the other NASA), which represents more than 600 TV outlets, filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. The filing, according to Broadcasting & Cable, is "mostly a litany of network practices that have the effect of taking programming control of stations away from local licensees, a violation of the Communications Act and FCC rules." In NASA's words, if such practices continue, affiliates will become "mere passive conduits for their networks' national programming." "We are partners with the networks," said NASA head Alan Frank, "but we cannot stand by and let them control our local stations. We know what works best for our local communities, and by law those decisions cannot be made in Hollywood or New York ... Both Congress and the FCC have long cared about localism and diversity, and this petition establishes that those core values of our nation's broadcasting system are at risk." In half a dozen news stories on the complaint, I saw no references to affiliate concern over the networks' increasingly tasteless prime-time fare, which more and more affiliates are reluctant to carry. Viewers offended by such programming ought to applaud NASA for its assertion of the important and often-overlooked principle of self-determination. It's not inevitably problematic to have Hollywood and New York deciding what airs on the major broadcast networks. After all, there was no affiliate revolt during the 1950s and '60s, the era of "The Honeymooners," "Leave It to Beaver" and "The Andy Griffith Show." Back then stations didn't complain about being "mere passive conduits"; they were proud to have the partnership. Since the '70s, however, prime-time programs haven't been merely green-lighted and produced in Hollywood and New York; they've also reflected the socially liberal worldview of both locales. The permissive approach to sex that pervades "Friends," for example, is a lot more common in certain areas of southern California (where the series is shot) and Manhattan (where it's set) than it is in, say, Greenville, S.C. Consequently, on Thursdays, the station manager of the Greenville NBC affiliate ought to be able to delay "Friends" until 9 p.m., when children are less likely to be watching, if he feels that airing it at 8 o'clock runs counter to community standards. He ought to be able to do so free from the harassment of network bigwigs who could decide, if it was their wish, to yank his affiliation in retaliation. There are, of course, business considerations involved in such moves. "Friends" is, admittedly, a hugely popular show. Last year, some NBC stations refused to air the short-lived animated series "God, the Devil and Bob," not only because of its religious bigotry, but also, no doubt, because it sounded like a Nielsen disaster in the making. Had a similarly themed show seemed likely to attract a large audience, perhaps a few (many?) of those stations would have swallowed their convictions in return for greenbacks. But that's localism. What should that Greenville station run at 8 o'clock Thursdays anyway? Please, no more talk about the lack of market interest in family programming during the family hour. Hit series after hit series addressing a family audience proves that is an empty proposition. What's needed is a way to match would-be producers of family programs with persons/corporate entities who decry today's prime-time vulgarity (ITAL) and (ITAL) are in a position to bankroll those would-be producers. A syndicated family show resulting from such an arrangement would make 8 p.m. the family hour again, at least in those markets where stations take the public interest seriously. Where are those markets? Look at the now-famous political map of Bush-Gore vote tallies. Where the "red" Bush votes are located -- that's where. Still the naysayers in Hollywood will maintain the earth's flatness, denying a market demand. How, then, would they explain the debut of "Doc" this past Sunday on the family-oriented Pax network? This drama scored the highest rating in Pax's two-and-a-half year history. More impressively, in some markets it drew more viewers than UPN, the WB, even NBC -- which isn't a complete loser in this, since it owns one-third of Pax. An affiliate revolt. Competition from a family network. The major networks are on their heels. Isn't it great?