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Affiliates OK NBC Cable Deal With Disney

May 02, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Though it might seem that NBC is consorting with the enemy by producing a series for cable television, the network's move appears to have met with grudging acceptence from its affiliated stations.

"Were I in their (NBC's) shoes, I would be hard-pressed to say I wouldn't do the same thing," said Tom Goodgame, president of Group W's television stations. "Does it make me happy? Not at all. But the industry is changing, and I think they're smart enough to know they've got to change with it. I think we all do."

At issue is the recently announced deal for NBC Productions to produce a half-hour children's comedy series, "Good Morning, Miss Bliss," for a national pay-TV service, the Disney Channel. NBC says it is the first time one of the major TV networks will be making a show for cable, even though all three parent corporations either are or have been owners of cable program services.

The Disney operation, serving nearly 4 million subscribers in a nation of 88.6 million TV households, is not a major NBC competitor. And after the series finishes its Disney run, NBC says, it may air on the network, either on Saturday mornings or in the daytime during the summer.

Still, grumblings from the 200-plus NBC affiliates might have been expected, even though a number of them also are in the cable business. But recent interviews with members of the NBC affiliate board turned up only some expressions of uneasiness, not criticism of the NBC-Disney agreement.

James Sefert, chairman of the NBC affiliates' board and president of Cosmos Broadcasting Co. in Greenville, S.C., said the board doesn't "anticipate any major hurt" to the network's affiliates from the Disney cable deal.

By better utilizing NBC Productions, the deal helps keeps costs down and "makes NBC stronger," added Sefert, whose company owns six stations affiliated with NBC.

That reasoning seems to be at the heart of NBC's decision. In a speech in Los Angeles last month, NBC president Robert C. Wright cited the pending deal with Disney as part of the network's need to find "new avenues of business and profit" in today's uncertain network marketplace. He praised as "innovative" the arrangement by which episodes of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" air on the Fox network after running on the Showtime cable service.

"Good Morning, Miss Bliss," which could run up to 80 episodes, is the only cable programming deal that NBC has in the works "at this time," said John Agoglia, executive vice president of NBC Productions.

CBS, which once owned and then dropped a cultural cable channel, plans no similar program deal similar to the NBC-Disney arrangement, a spokesman said. ABC, which is part owner of the ESPN, Arts & Entertainment and Lifetime cable channels, has no plans either to make programs for cable--at least on the entertainment side.

Wright, who was unavailable for an interview last week, noted in his speech the growing power of cable TV, which now is in an estimated 51.1% of the nation's TV households and is still growing.

"In dollars and cents, cable is now the wealthiest medium," he said. "Network revenues have been flat for three years and the future is, to put it charitably, uncertain."

Thus, he said, while network TV remains "our core business," NBC needs to drum up new business and revenues. But NBC, like its network rivals, has restrictions on the type of drumming it can do.

A federal consent decree, which doesn't expire until 1990, limits to four hours a week the amount of prime-time programming that the networks can produce themselves. And the Federal Communications Commission's financial-syndication rules bar the networks from syndicating or having a financial interest in shows they air.

Given those restrictions, said Tom Rogers, NBC's vice president for business development, "I think (NBC) affiliates recognize that cable programming . . . is one of the options we can pursue." The trick, he added, is to do it "in a way that's consistent with our core business without undermining it."

Cyril Vetter, president of NBC-affiliate WVLA-TV in Baton Rouge, La., admitted to being worried about maintaining that balance. "Any time you can strike a deal with Disney, that's good. But I also think that franchise and exclusivity--the uniqueness of our product--is what we have to promote," he explained. "That's what makes us attractive as a viewing option and an advertising medium."

But it's unlikely that NBC would ever produce a program for cable and subsequently air it in prime time on the network, Agoglia said.

"We wouldn't want to have pre-exposed product (a rerun from cable) on in prime time," he said. "It puts us at a disadvantage relative to the other two networks." (ABC has aired several movies made originally for the Disney Channel as part of its prime-time "Disney Sunday Movie" series.)

Asked what he thinks of the NBC-Disney cable deal, affiliate board member Robert H. Smith Jr. replied with his own question, delivered deadpan: "Well, first off, can they get writers for it?"

(As with many Hollywood shows, NBC's production of "Miss Bliss" has been delayed by the TV and film writers' strike, which began its ninth week today.)

Many affiliates, said Smith, executive vice president of WCYB-TV in Bristol, Va., "have some concern when they (NBC) start talking about doing things for cable, which we perceive as a direct competition to us. But at the same time, I can see the network's frustration with the current guidelines on production and ownership of shows."

He doesn't see NBC's first for-cable program effort as the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Instead, he said, "It's maybe just kind of keeping the bullpen warmed up" in case restrictions on network program-financing and syndication ever are loosened or abolished.

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