TV Stations Allege Network Thuggery

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WASHINGTON — More than 600 television stations are asking for a federal inquiry into what they say are heavy-handed tactics by the television networks.

The Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, which represents stations affiliated with the ABC, CBS and NBC networks, filed the petition for inquiry with the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday.

The petition alleges that the networks are exerting undue influence over a variety of decisions that should be made locally.

The group charges that the networks are demanding that all of their programming be aired rather than letting affiliates pick and choose.

Affiliates of News Corp. Ltd.’s (NWS) Fox network say Fox is trying to force affiliates to give up control of their new digital capacity. Fox stations are not members of the group.

General Electric Co.’s (GE) NBC network and Viacom Inc.’s (VIA) CBS network are using affiliation agreements to “unlawfully manipulate or take advantage of proposed station sales,” the group says.

“We filed this petition because of the disturbing trend in recent years by the networks to assume greater dominance in the relationship with affiliates,” said Alan Frank, chairman of the alliance and president of Post-Newsweek Stations.

“Both Congress and the FCC have long-cared about localism and diversity, and this petition establishes that those core values of our nation’s broadcasting system are at risk.”

A statement from CBS said the petition “is an ill-advised and extremely disappointing action, particularly given CBS’s strong, ongoing commitment to the network-affiliate relationship. CBS categorically denies taking part in any unlawful activity whatsoever, and we are confident that the FCC will find no merit in these baseless and irresponsible charges.”

A Fox statement said the company had just received a copy of the filing and would need to review it further before commenting.

A statement from the ABC network, whose parent company is the Walt Disney Co. (DIS), said references to the network in the petition are “wholly without merit. The public would be best served by deregulating the broadcast industry to reflect today’s highly competitive environment, not the sweeping and unjustifiable government intrusion” demanded by the affiliates.

“It’s a shame this organization filed this request,” an NBC statement said. “We’ve made so much progress in terms of our relationship with our affiliates. It’s as good as it’s been in many years. We’re confident the FCC won’t find any merit to their claims.”

The petition comes as the FCC’s station ownership limits could be challenged following a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals that struck down similar limits on cable ownership on constitutional grounds.

The networks have been chafing under limits that restrict any one owner to 35 percent of the nation’s stations, saying they are a relic from an era of far less media competition.

The court said the FCC had the power to set limits, but hadn’t justified them sufficiently.

While Fox’s challenge to the ownership cap is mentioned in the petition, the stations say that isn’t the primary reason for the petition.

Members of the coalition include owners of multiple stations, including the Washington Post. Co. (WPO) and Belo Corp. (BLC).

The petition mandates no action by the FCC, but is the first step for any party wanting to air a grievance at the agency.

Copyright (c) 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.