Saturday, December 18, 2010

Volume 5, Number 30: The Fox-New World Deal

Note: I originally posted this entry a week ago on my brother's Journal of Historical TV, Radio and Communications blog.

On December 11, 1994, WJBK (Channel 2 in Detroit, my local TV market) switched its affiliation from CBS to Fox as the result of a deal struck more than six months earlier between the News Corporation (parent company of the Fox Broadcasting Network) and New World Communications. On that same day, CBS began broadcasting shows on low-powered WGPR (Channel 62).

WJBK and stations in eleven other markets were recently acquired or about to be acquired by New World Communications. Eight of those stations were CBS affiliates, including WJBK. It led to a rash of affiliation deals and switches affecting many markets across the country, as outlined in this Wikipedia article.

I hated that deal at the start, mainly because it was one of those deals where a few rich guys made a deal and didn't give a crap that it affected so many people, consumers and TV station employees alike. WJBK found itself with large time gaps after losing its CBS affiliation, and CBS had to broadcast on a low-powered UHF station. I especially hated the latter part because I did watch one CBS show on a regular basis (Christy, starring my favorite actress, Kellie Martin) and picking up that show on Channel 62 was a pain in the neck without cable. If you were to travel back in time to 1995, I doubt you would have found a single TV viewer who found anything good in the shake-up that resulted from the deal.

I've read on a number of sources (including Wikipedia) that Fox's acquisition of NFL broadcast rights in 1993 (the NFC portion thereof, that is) was a compelling factor in the deal. That is baloney, simply put. If NFL football--sports programming that only airs a few games a week on weekends for just a few months a year--was such a strong driver for affiliation switches, then CBS would have lost even more affiliates to Fox in 1994, and NBC would then have lost affiliates to CBS in 1998 when the latter began carrying the AFC package.

The deal was, simply put, a bona fide case of corporate money controlling what people watch--usually, it's a network cancelling a show because the advertisers sponsoring the show don't want to pay for that sponsorship anymore, but this deal was corporate control on a much higher level. Following the deal, Detroit very nearly had no CBS affiliate at all.
  • First, the former Fox affiliate (WKBD, Channel 50) was owned by Paramount Stations Group and thus bound to become affiliated with the new United Paramount Network in January 1995;
  • The owners and management at NBC-affiliated WDIV (Channel 4) were not about to switch affiliations, as NBC was doing very well in the Nielsen ratings (and would be the dominant network of the late 1990s);
  • WXYZ (Channel 7) stayed with ABC after its owners, Scripps-Howard, agreed to affiliate all of its stations with ABC--a deal that led to repercussions in other markets.
  • Finally, the owners of WXON (Channel 20) and WADL (Channel 38)--both independent stations at that time--refused to sell their stations to CBS. The former subsequently affiliated itself with the fledgling WB Network, while the latter simply made unreasonable demands to CBS.
The only option CBS had left was low-powered religious independent station WGPR (Channel 62). It had only been operating for 19 years and was generally regarded as a low-budget station that aired lots of religious and shopping programs. It aired CBS programs that WJBK declined to air (most notably CBS This Morning, the weak sister among the "Big Three's" 7am-9am morning shows; WJBK dumped it in 1992 in favor of producing its own morning show). CBS had a problem promoting its new Detroit affiliation: it aired TV spots about the change on Channel 62; the problem was that hardly anyone was watching, so CBS had to rely on print media to promote its new station. By contrast, WJBK was allowed to promote its switch to Fox even when it was still affiliated with CBS. Its weak signal discouraged viewers from tuning in, especially older ones who lived without cable TV and were frustrated over no longer being able to get CBS' soap operas with just "the rabbit ears." In the months that followed, CBS' ratings in Detroit suffered terribly, as did its ratings in Atlanta and Milwaukee (markets where CBS also had to work out eleventh-hour deals with high-numbered UHF stations after losing affiliates to Fox). The ratings decline was especially evident with The CBS Evening News, because WGPR did not have a 6pm newscast, whereas WJBK always did.

The sale of Channel 62 from the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons to CBS was not smooth, either. Two ethnic groups protested the sale--African-Americans because WGPR was the only African-American-owned station in Detroit (and the first such station in the United States), and Arab-Americans (because WGPR aired a locally-produced two-hour Middle Eastern variety program called Arab Voice of Detroit, and that show left the air upon WGPR's agreement to become CBS' Detroit outlet). After much legal wrangling, the sale to CBS was approved in July 1995. At that time, WGPR has changed its call letters to WWJ-TV, in an effort to enhance its brand image by tying itself to the far better-known all-news radio station, WWJ-AM 950, which CBS bought in 1989.

One thing that surprised me about the Fox-New World Deal was a lack of intervention by either the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). For one thing, Fox had deliberately avoided being regulated by the FCC by programming just under the number of hours to be legally considered a network (in particular, Fox has still never aired a non-sports program at 10pm Eastern time on any day of the week). If Fox didn't want to be regulated by the FCC, why should it have been allowed to gain high-profile stations at the expense of those networks that did comply with FCC regulations? Surely one of these commissions would say that this deal was not in the best interests of viewers in various markets, including Detroit, Atlanta and Milwaukee.

One immediate effect of the affiliation changes was that both WJBK and WGPR had large time gaps to fill in their schedules--the former because it no longer carried CBS programming, and the latter because (other than CBS network programs) it had virtually no programming. WJBK filled the time once occupied by the CBS soaps with reruns of Night Court, Amen and Top Cops, and curiously, also reruns of the Canadian-produced legal drama, Street Legal. WGPR went to the bottom of the rerun barrel with 21 Jump Street (a Fox show, for Pete's sake), Knight Rider, Night Heat, Rescue 911 and a cancelled talk show, The Jane Whitney Show. You read correctly--at 5pm, instead of news, CBS' new affiliate was showing reruns of a cancelled talk show.

In an ideal world--OK, the Mark Rabinowitz version of an ideal world--the Fox-New World deal would never have taken place. Instead, 16 years ago, CBS would have remained on Channel 2, and Fox would have moved to Channel 20 in January 1995 (after WKBD moved from Fox to UPN at the same time). However, I have come to realize that if the Fox-New World deal had not taken place, then surely, another deal would have shaken the local TV landscape in Detroit. An example is the CBS-Viacom merger in 1999. If CBS was still affiliated with WJBK at that time (instead of owning and operating WWJ-TV), might CBS have moved their affiliation to Viacom-owned WKBD as part of that merger? And if so, would Fox have moved from WXON Channel 20 to WJBK, even though it would have meant moving to its third different Detroit affiliate in five years?

16 years later, there is some consolation to be found in the deal.
  • WJBK's news programming has improved considerably since becoming a Fox O&O. When it was a CBS affiliate, it was owned by Storer Broadcasting--a company that was not willing to pay to keep its best talent--and Gillett Communications, a company built on debt and thus was too cash-strapped to possibly hold on to talent. Its newscasts were filled with unfunny banter and cheesy slogans. Not surprisingly, WJBK had a high turnover of on-air talent. By contrast, its current anchor team of Huel Perkins and Monica Gayle has been together since 1998 and Fox 2 News has won numerous local Emmy awards, perhaps because Fox is willing to pay to keep WJBK's best talent, whereas Storer and Gillett were not.
  • Furthermore, Channel 62's broadcast signal improved after the CBS-Viacom merger. In 2000, CBS moved Channel 62's operations to WKBD's studios in Southfield. Between the stronger signal, CBS' acquisition of the AFC portion of NFL broadcast rights in 1998, and a better slate of programs than it had in the mid-1990s, CBS' ratings in Detroit are much better than they were 15 years ago.
  • Finally, the old VHF and UHF channel positions have become increasingly irrelevant. Being Channel 62 on the UHF dial was horribly inconvenient in the days before remote controls (which was why TV networks prized VHF channels so much back then). However, between the rise of digital television in the late 2000s and the increasing use of cable TV before then, switching to a high-numbered channel is as easy as pressing a couple buttons on the remote.
Final analysis: Boy, I hated that deal then (I still consider it a minor factor in the untimely cancellation of Christy). I've gotten used to it, but I still think back to the days when the CBS station had local newscasts at 5, 6 and 11, the Fox station was on the UHF dial, and Arab-Americans could catch Arab Voice of Detroit on Saturday nights at 10 on Channel 62.

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