ABC asked to reduce prime time


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Doug Halonen

David Barrett, who heads the company that has the most ABC affiliates in the country, has a message for the network: Slash your prime-time schedule from 22 hours a week to 15 so his stations can make some decent money.

"I would love to see the networks cut back to 15 [hours a week]," said Mr. Barrett, president and CEO of Hearst-Argyle Television, at a financial seminar hosted by Bear Stearns in Washington last week.

Mr. Barrett has already had discussions with ABC suggesting that it return to affiliates the 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. prime-time hour, he later told ELECTRONIC MEDIA. Hearst-Argyle, with 12 ABC affiliates, would likely devote that hour to local news, Mr. Barrett said.

Clearly the idea is a long shot, but its significance stems from the fact that it comes from Mr. Barrett, whose company not only has the greatest number of ABC affiliates but also, with 10 NBC stations, is that network's second-biggest group owner.

But assuming the time were returned -- an eventuality that could be accomplished by a simple change in an affiliate's contract with a network -- affiliates could fill the slot with syndicated programs or other fare they felt would make more money for them. ABC had no comment.

But executives at CBS and NBC said they oppose the cutback on grounds that it's the more the merrier when it comes to airtime for developing hits.

"The more programs you put out there, the better chance you have of finding those few shows that hit it big and drive your networks," said David Poltrack, executive VP of research and planning for CBS Television.

"Most of those [22] hours, particularly for NBC, are very profitable," added Randy Falco, president, NBC Television Network.

Still, affiliate representatives said the plan, which would bring ABC, CBS and NBC into prime-time parity with Fox Broadcasting (Fox has long limited its prime-time schedule to 15 hours), could help the Big 3 focus their resources.

"If you can't produce credible product that's competitive, you should stand aside," said David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Kevin O'Brien, president, Meredith Broadcasting Group, said, "It would be better for them [the networks] because they would be able to dramatically reduce their program costs."

Added Jerald Fritz, senior VP, legal and strategic affairs, Allbritton Communications, "Anything that gives us the ability to enhance our control is a good thing."

One well-placed affiliate executive said the crux of the problem is that in a 300-channel universe, consumers have so many viewing options today that affiliates are in a better position than national networks to judge what will appeal to their local audiences.

"The networks are always whining about losing money," the executive said. "They can cut their losses by getting out of certain dayparts and focusing their resources on getting better programming for the dayparts they continue to have."

A network executive said, however, networks have been providing the 22 hours in response to longtime affiliate demand, in an arrangement that frees affiliates from the expense of producing or paying for much of their best programming.

"[The Barrett proposal] appears to fly in the face of what appears to be a pretty good gig for them," the network executive said.