WHAT EXACTLY IS A NETWORK TODAY? DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN TV NETWORKS AND SYNDICATION ARE FAST DISAPPEARING

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What is a network?

To Jamie Kellner, who's spear heading Warner Bros.' drive for a "5th network," it's a group of TV outlets of any description (cable, broadcast) that run the same programs at the same time. If so, what does that make "Nightline" and the David Letterman show, with their many delayed broadcasts? Or the entire NBC daytime schedule, of which, according to NBC management, only 14% is carried "in pattern."

According to Kerry McCluggage of Paramount, a network is a group of broadcast stations in most of the country that carry the same programs-not necessarily at the same time. Under this definition, is "NYPD Blue" carried on the ABC Network? Or, since it is running on as many as 50 non-affiliates, does it have its own "ad hoc" lineup?

The Federal Communications Commission defines a network as a program service with 15 or more hours of prime time programming; but this was deliberately crafted to help the fledgling Fox service, which was considered by most people to be a network long since.

Given all these competing definitions, which is most useful in describing today's TV marketplace? On balance, Mr. McCluggage's definition seems to be on the right track, for two reasons:

It recognizes the primacy of broadcast TV. Despite the wonders of the 500-channel society that cable (and DBS, and MMDS) can bring, most viewing is still to broadcast stations. And viewing is what advertisers are seeking, and advertisers still provide most of the money that pays for TV program production.

It acknowledges the increasing difficulty of getting any program presented at the same time (allowing for time zone differences). While advertisers have always preferred this, and will pay premiums for it, it is not necessarily a viewer benefit, since viewers in different parts of the country have different program preferences. And in the future the viewers, and the broadcasters who best serve them, will have a bigger say in programming than ever.

What's going on at the moment is a big fight for the most valuable real estate in television: program slots on the nation's 1,100 broadcast TV stations. The traditional networks have controlled access to the majority of these for 40 years, but they have not owned the programs they provided. Since eased regulatory rules are enabling them to provide more programs they produce and own (mostly news and reality shows like "I Witness Video"), the program producers-like Warner Bros. and Paramount, as well as MCA, Columbia, King World Tribune and others-are fighting to protect their distribution outlets. Since the best way to do that is to lock in written agreement with stations-affiliation agreements, if you will-that is precisely what they are doing.

But is this different from syndication? After all, King World has signed contracts for carriage of "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy" and "Oprah" through 1997-many on ABC affiliates. And other affiliates have such agreements with Multimedia for "Donahue" and "Sally Jessy Raphael."

The answer is no. The distinctions between "network" and "syndication" were never all that clear cut. Both systems, after all, involve placing shows on TV stations in return for commercial time, which is then sold to national advertisers. Now, with more program producers fighting over limited distribution space, creating new alliances with stations, the distinctions are disappearing.

It's time for everyone in the industry to recognize how similar the new systems are. This includes the A.C. Nielsen Co. There are three things Nielsen should do: 1. Flag "network" programs in which at least 10% of the stations (on a coverage basis) carry the program at a time other than that listed. Delayed broadcasts are already frequent in some dayparts (notably daytime and late fringe), and will become more so as the distribution fight heats up. At the moment, the networks control access to their lineup information, and it's not always easy to get delayed broadcast information.

2. Flag network shows that have significant carriage on stations that are not the "regular" affiliate, thus signaling ad hoc networks like "NYPD Blue's."

3. Combine the current NTI (network) and NSS (syndication) pocketpieces as a signal to buyers that these two systems are essentially one: the broadcast TV market.

These moves will help advertising buyers navigate their way through the increasingly complex television system. It will provide them with better information with which to evaluate network programs vis a vis syndication, where providing program lineups is a standard procedure. It will also serve notice to the buying community of the increasing convergence of network and syndication.

Broadcast television-both network and syndication-is providing more programs than ever. This is a great boon to broadcast TV stations, which are being wooed by more programming services offering a greater variety of programs.

At the same time, advertisers need not be dismayed at this increasing complexity. More programs mean more in-depth evaluation is required. But this also means opportunities for creative planning and buying in this dynamic marketplace have never been greater.

Mr. Duncan is executive director of the Advertiser Syndicated Television Association, New York.

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