In a departure from the light banter generally associated with such events, a panel of entertainment division heads from the six broadcast networks Tuesday yielded a pointed debate about the networks' seeking to extract a piece of rerun rights to prime-time series--an issue of enormous concern to suppliers of television programming.
Speaking at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society's annual luncheon opening the new TV season, Nancy Tellem, the recently installed president of CBS Entertainment, chided NBC counterpart Warren Littlefield for saying the networks must exert more control over their prime-time lineups by owning more of the programs they air.
"If you base your scheduling on whether you have an ownership stake, I think that's the death knell for your schedule," she said.
Littlefield maintained that the networks' need to share in syndication rights is "one of the realities that you deal with today," citing eroding profits for broadcasters as cable whittles away at their audience as programming costs continue to rise.
Beyond sharing in potentially lucrative syndication sales of hit shows, NBC wants to own more of its programming to prevent the sort of free-agent renegotiation that forced the General Electric unit to pay an unprecedented sum--estimated at more than $850 million--to retain broadcast rights to the series "ER," produced by Warner Bros. Television, for three more years.
NBC recently laid off more than 200 employees in an effort to bolster profits, which figure to be diminished based on the price for renewing "ER" and the comedy "Mad About You," produced by Sony Corp.'s Columbia TriStar Television.
NBC's Littlefield noted that all the networks are exerting pressure on suppliers, alluding to reports that ABC, a Walt Disney Co. division, slashed network fees to production companies as a condition of scheduling their programs. CBS also holds an ownership interest in most of its new programs this season, and reportedly arm-twisted at least one supplier, Columbia, for a stake in the new comedy show "King of Queens."
Tom Nunan, president of entertainment at UPN, dangled an olive branch to studios by saying new program services, such as his, offer "an opportunity to come on and own your programming outright," promising that UPN will not exact "a pound of flesh" to put programs on the air.
Garth Ancier, who heads programming for the Warner Bros.-backed WB network, suggested networks alter their financial relationship with the TV stations that carry their programs "instead of going back to Hollywood saying we want a piece of your action."
The WB has sought to reverse the flow of money in that equation, with its stations paying the network based on ratings improvement that network programming yields. While the major networks have sought to reduce the compensation they pay to stations--especially in the wake of committing billions of dollars for rights to televise NFL football--they continue to operate under long-term affiliation agreements limiting their leverage on such matters.