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.

"The perfect example is 'Roseanne,'" said the industry source. "The affiliates had to make a two-year commitment to take it. The ratings stunk. Most of them wanted to drop it after two months."

But the affiliates couldn't. They had been forced into their commitment and reliant on syndicated programming from the networks and other production companies (such as King World Productions, which produced the Roseanne Barr vehicle).

"The whole business of (syndicated) broadcast TV is changing," said Campo, explaining how his company's partnership with NBC would put an end to affiliate stations being left holding a bag of bad syndicated shows. "Our partnership platform with Gannett and NBC means pre-approved programming with input from regional audiences," he said.

Terms of the deal are undisclosed, but the time frame for development and distribution was left open-ended, an NBC spokesman said.

As Hearst-Argyle's executive vice president and COO, Tony Vinciquerra pointed out there's a clear advantage for NBC. Instead of sending its sales force out to the nation's 210 programming markets, it can lock up over 120 of those markets with "two phone calls" and launch its syndicated shows immediately.

"The old way of doing things is over," said Vinciquerra. "This agreement emphasizes the importance of content on a local and national level and the importance of leadership TV stations to the success of that content."

In other words, memo to the networks: keep us happy or else.

Keeping advertisers happy

While NBC has been making sure its affiliates are pleased with its syndicated programming, ABC is leading the way in romancing advertisers. At a development meeting with national media buyers last week, ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairmen Lloyd Braun and Stuart Bloomberg went above and beyond the call of duty in trumpeting their 2001-2002 lineup. The two promised "to put their money where their mouth is" by sending out copies of the pilot scripts of their new comedies and dramas to any buyers who requested them.

Thus, national advertisers will get a first peek at ABC's upcoming projects while the scripts are still undergoing changes and are susceptible to input. Advertising executives will be able to comment on shows ranging from a new comedy by "Seinfeld" alumnus Jason Alexander to a drama starring Sally Field.

"It sounds like a throwback to the old days when the advertisers had creative control," opined the industry insider.

ABC strongly rejected the idea that the network would take advertiser input into consideration when programming its content.

"The sending out of scripts was not in any sense (meant to indicate) that advertisers have an impact on content," said ABC spokeswoman Julie Hoover. "It only was to show we have good shows in development."

However, not all industry observers agree.

"You're going to see this happening more and more, as the networks grow more concerned about reassuring advertisers," said Jack Feuer, media editor of Adweek magazine. "You're not going to see censoring of show's that would be counterproductive and only anger viewers. But the networks' tactics (for appealing to advertisers) are going to change. The networks have to compete and respond to challenges from cable, syndicated and original local programming, as well as new technology."

Wilson agreed.

"You're going to see more people trying to put this sort of arrangement together," he said. "Development can't happen in a vacuum. We (at NBC) are also talking to advertisers about content and certain segments of our syndicated programming that they might like to sponsor."

Fox and CBS are certain not to be far behind. Fox representatives did not return phone calls and CBS said it has no plans to make changes to its "good, healthy relationships" with advertisers and affiliates.

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