To keep pace in the competitive cable-ready world, the Big Four television networks are soliciting unprecedented feedback on program content from both advertisers and affiliates.

Although they claim that they alone will make the ultimate decisions on what goes into shows, network executives say the new tactic is part of an attempt to be more responsive to media buyers and the stations that carry their shows.

Industry watchers say the move by NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox is being prompted by a downturn in economic conditions, the rising popularity of alternative channels and the fear of strike-related fallout. "The networks no longer have a take-it-or-leave it attitude," said Thomas W. Campo with Hearst-Argyle Television Inc.

Hearst the second largest U.S. television station group is in the second month of a partnership with NBC Owned and Operated Stations (a division of NBC Enterprises and Syndication, which distributes all NBC-owned programming worldwide) and Gannett Co, Inc.'s broadcasting arm to develop and distribute syndicated programming that is directly responsive to the input of local stations. The combined alliance includes eight of the top 10 national markets and reaches 60 percent of the country without overlaps.

NBC Enterprises has gone a step further to merge its television production and distribution unit with Hearst-Argyle's boutique.

"We have a daytime component of syndicated programming that's not growing. Part of the problem in the business is that the development process is in California and the local stations (around the country) don't have input," said Ed Wilson, president of NBC Enterprises and Syndication. "Now, development people will be at the local stations and the stations will be where the shows originate."

The new venture is rolling out several shows for cable and first-run programming. The first out of the box will be "The Other Half," ready for fall 2001 an hour-long talk show about how men see women. In another first, Hearst-Argyle will share in the ownership of the syndicated programming.

"Others have attempted this, but this is the first time that the stations will own a piece (of the shows)," said Wilson.

Where the money is

"The big money is in the back-end and syndication," explained one television industry insider. "For an affiliate to get a piece of the (syndication) profit is a big bonus. That's where the real windfall is."

The deal is a move by NBC to become more responsive to the needs of its affiliates, which have been burned in the past by lousy syndication deals.

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