Tuesday, January 13, 2015

We Interrupt This Special Report For Something That Will Make Us Money

Long ago and far away, I worked at a TV station that hated network special reports when they ran too long, especially when they started knocking out commercials we were planning to run in the programs our general manager or programming director wished we were showing.

The problem reached a head in the 1999 plane-crash death of JFK Junior, when the networks went wall-to-wall with the story on a weekend. We got calls from angry viewers who wanted to see tennis. A station exec grumbled about announcements coming from the network telling people where they could tune -- away from us -- to see it. "They're just repeating the same things over again," she snorted. We couldn't do anything. We didn't have any alternative programming as it was, but we were losing the revenue from the local station breaks.

Eventually station brass came up with a solution. We had the generic end of a network special report on tape saying, "This has been a special report." If the toppers thought the network was droning on too long, they would have Master Control bail out of the report with the generic end tape and go back to whatever local programming we were showing.

I don't know if the network ever caught on to this. They would've been livid if they knew. In 2002 a decade ago, CBS threw a fit when it learned one of their owned-and-operated stations in Pittsburgh was using a device called the "Time Machine" to delay and compress a live football game in order to squeeze extra commercials. I found the outrage laughable. Before this time, dozens of stations had been using the device on the down low. They only stopped when they got caught.

I understand why local stations are trying to protect or amp up their revenue. The networks that used to pay them to run their shows are now squeezing them for money they get from cable companies for permission to retransmit their signals. The NFL also comes around with its hand out -- and remember, this league gets cushy tax breaks. Then when cable contracts come up and stations have to raise their retransmission fees to protect their behinds, it's the stations who get the hate mail.

People will talk about trying to find a new business model for television, but it's talk. I would rather the networks and the NFL find a way to cut costs so they don't have to ask so much of their stations. NBC tried managing for scale with the ill-fated Jay Leno Show experiment, but affiliates screamed. Shoveling cheap shows onto the air isn't the solution. If I knew what was, I wouldn't be sitting behind a news producer's desk.

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