KAANAPALI, Hawaii — Even as NBC developed "The Cosby Show" and dreamed of its climb out of the ratings cellar a few years ago, KYTV-TV, the network's Springfield, Mo., affiliate, was beefing up its "Action News" and widening its ratings lead over that city's ABC and CBS affiliates.
The two events were coincidental but mutually beneficial. Many viewers of "KY3," as locals call it, kept their dials tuned to NBC's prime-time series, boosting their ratings a bit. In turn, the success of the network's shows added a new layer of muscle to the station's 30-year lock on its No. 1 local position.
A similar story can be told all over the country. Local stations build their reputations and profits one way, the networks another. The common ground provides the basis for a longstanding relationship.
"We need each other," said Bill Moll, co-owner of KYTV. "You provide a lead-in for their prime time, they provide a lead-in for your late news, so the synergy is important."
The president of broadcasting for Harte-Hanks Communications, Moll is among the 30-odd owners of a station group that includes affiliates of each of the three major networks. That's why he is among a few broadcasters who can--and do--attend all three networks' annual affiliate station meetings, such as the one that NBC held here on Maui last week.
Moll offers a keen perspective on the role of the local station--a role that in nearly every community gives it an identity distinct from the network.
The distinction is sufficient to make local winners out of network second-bests. Harte-Hanks' two CBS stations--in San Antonio, Tex., where the company is based, and in Greensboro, N.C.--are No. 1 in their local markets, thanks largely to strong news operations.
"There are two things that distinguish you in a market," Moll said. "One is your network; the other is your local news. Go into any market--go into Springfield, Mo.--and say 'Tell me about "KY3," ' and they'd say 'Action News.' "
While the network provides about 75% of an affiliate station's programming time, the remaining 25% defines the station's identity and generates most of its revenue. Moll said almost half the station revenues at his company's NBC and CBS stations are generated by news shows.
But Moll's ABC station, WTLV-TV in Jacksonville, Fla., would be earning $1.5 million to $2 million a year more, Moll estimated, if it were affiliated with NBC, as it once was. That represents about 12% of annual revenues.
Thus, "The Cosby Show" is worth more to any NBC affiliate than the couple thousand dollars a week the network pays local stations on average to air the show.
Such is the power of a strong network lineup.
That's why the NBC affiliates came in off the golf courses and beaches in droves to the final business session last week to hear programming chief Brandon Tartikoff give a night-by-night analysis of the fall prime-time schedule.
(It's also why the affiliates were so delighted to hear that Tartikoff signed a new contract with the network to remain as president of the entertainment division. "Brandon, right now, is the best programmer in television," said James Lynagh, chairman of the NBC affiliates board of directors.)
But NBC affiliates sounded a note of concern about what they perceive as weak programming from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the fall. NBC's move to pit "Miami Vice" against CBS' "Dallas" Fridays at 9 may give the network another night in its victory column, but if the number of viewers drops when the unproven "L.A. Law" comes on at 10 p.m., the affiliates can get hurt.
The word that frightens the network is preemption .
"If a show is doing poorly in prime time, perhaps I can do better by replacing it with an off-network show (a rerun of a former series), a movie or a local event," Moll explained. Why carry 'Sports World,' the theory goes, if airing Kansas City Royals baseball in the Springfield market will bring higher ratings?
"ABC is going through that right now" in prime time, Moll noted.
Moll participated in a worst-case scenario for a third-place network: defection. In 1980, Harte-Hanks switched WTLV's affiliation from NBC, then in third place, to ABC, which was coming off a prime-time winning streak in the late '70s.
"It was a short-term help," Moll said, "and it's not helping us now."
The delicate balance of power between network and affiliate has since tipped to NBC's favor; the network now must decide whether to stick with the NBC affiliate that saw it through its rise to the top--or to bestow its affiliation upon a possibly stronger operation, such as Moll's.
"We've had ongoing dialogues with the network for five years, since we left," Moll said. The return of WTLV to the NBC fold, he said, "is an open question."
If the network-affiliate relationship is one of equal partners, the local broadcaster still has a master: the local community.