3 Breakup Stories Between TV Networks and Local Stations

A photo of people in a conference room, fighting over money.
Meetings between TV networks and their local affiliated stations probably don't look like this, but it's true that money plays a big role in their relationship. Photo © Image Source / Getty Images

Ask TV viewers about their hometown affiliate stations and they are usually quick to say, "CBS is on Channel 2," or "ABC is on Channel 7." That's because the relationship between a station and its broadcast network partner has been in place for years, if not decades.

But that relationship is changing fast in some cities. That's because in most of the country, the TV network doesn't own its local station, so it can shop for another station that's willing to fork over money to air its programming.

Long-term relationships are cast aside for cash, with local stations finding themselves jilted by the powerful broadcast networks.

In the first few weeks of 2016, this has started happening in three television DMAs. There are factors that make each case unique.

Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina: CBS, NBC Switching Stations

In the Raleigh/Durham TV market, CBS and NBC are switching stations. WRAL had been the CBS station for 30 years, but was unable to come to terms to renew its agreement with CBS. It is the dominant #1 station in the market.

So it offered itself up to NBC, which had the much weaker WNCN as its affiliated station. NBC jumped at the chance to hitch its peacock to the most powerful station in town.

The apparent reason for the move was the way WRAL says CBS tried to force it into a one-sided deal. While negotiations over money are rarely made public, recently the TV networks have been wanting local stations to pay much more to be able to carry network programming.

Tri-Cities, Tennessee-Virginia: ABC Dumps Longtime Affiliate

Sometimes, the local stations can't afford to renew their contract with their network. This was the case for WKPT, the ABC affiliate for more than 40 years in the Tri-Cities market of Tennessee/Virginia (Bristol-Johnson City-Kingsport).

According to WKPT's general manager, ABC wanted $15 million to renew their agreement.

After months of negotiations, the station agreed to the deal, but it was too late.

By then, ABC had struck its own agreement with CBS station WJHL. No, WJHL wasn't going to give up CBS to get ABC. Instead, it would now be home to both networks, airing CBS on its main 11.1 digital channel and ABC on 11.2. WJHL can apparently afford to pay both networks because it is owned by broadcasting giant Media General, which owns more than 70 stations nationwide.

In comparison, the company which owns WKPT has only one other TV station and a handful of radio properties. Losing the ABC affiliation will cut into revenue so severely that WKPT has closed its news department and laid off employees.

Boston: NBC Ditching Local Station in a Complicated Move

Even the country's largest TV markets aren't immune to these shakeups. In Boston, NBC is leaving behind its affiliated station WHDH. But where NBC will end up is not yet known.

In markets as large as Boston, networks typically own their own stations. That means there's no affiliation agreement to negotiate. Boston is currently the largest city in the country where NBC doesn't own its own station.

It appears the issue in Boston started when NBC wanted to buy WHDH for $200 million.

The station's owner told The Boston Globe that he wouldn't sell for less than $500 million, and the deal would have to include a second Boston station he owns.

NBC walked and says it'll launch its own station on Jan. 1, 2017. But details about that station aren't known. NBC owns a Telemundo station in the market, and NBC owner Comcast owns 24-hour cable news channel New England Cable News.

So NBC has options. But WHDH's owner isn't going away quietly. Instead, he says he plans to file a challenge with the federal government, saying Comcast is breaking a promise it made when it was allowed to take over NBC.

Why This is Happening

This is happening because of money and control. Networks are faced with increased programming expenses. It costs more to produce quality prime time shows, not to mention to acquire the rights to televise sports.

The networks are seeking more money from the owners of local stations across the country.

But local stations are faced with rising costs of their own. It costs more to produce news and to buy popular syndicated shows like Wheel of Fortune or Ellen.

It seems hard to believe today, but for decades, the networks actually paid local stations to run network programming. A local station was paid to run hits of yesteryear, such as I Love Lucy or All in the Family. That was because the networks wanted to ensure their programming would be seen from coast to coast, so it would be easier to sell TV advertising.

After a while, the networks probably wondered why they paid so much money for big programs like the Super Bowl, then turned around and paid their local affiliated stations to air the game. In recent years, the networks slowly cut out their payments to stations, then began forcing stations to pay them if they wanted to continue being an affiliate.

In the future, networks and local stations may go their separate ways. If that happens, it will be because of money, with each side believing they'll be better off without the other.