The battle will test not only the financial wherewithal of each of the four networks, but their promotional and marketing capabilities as well.
"Anybody can buy coverage. If you have deep enough pockets, you can seduce any station," said a senior Big 3 network executive. "The trick is how successfully you can market your affiliate's local brand identity."
While CBS was hardest hit by the affiliate raid, Black Rock appears to have a particular expertise in establishing that kind of identity for weak stations.
In September 1990, when ABC raided WHAS, a strong VHF CBS affiliate in Louisville, Ky., CBS was left with a weak UHF station, WLKY, then in last place.
In one year, CBS repositioned WLKY and made it the No. 1 station in the market with ratings higher than even CBS' national average.
Last week, CBS was already developing a similar marketing strategy for the eight markets where Fox raided its affiliates, with particular emphasis on five key cities-Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Tampa, Fla.
"We will throw a lot of firepower into those markets," said George Schweitzer, exec VP-marketing and communications at CBS.
Mr. Schweitzer wouldn't disclose details, but said the effort will be a comprehensive "brand identity program" that will include tours by major CBS stars in each market and a barrage of promotional spots.
"We're going to let the viewers know that we've simply moved to a different aisle in the supermarket," he said.
He added the new affiliates will also benefit from a new national promotion strategy CBS will unveil at its affiliates conference June 1 to 3 in Los Angeles.
Instead of running the traditional 15-and 30-second promo spots, Mr. Schweitzer said, CBS will bunch its promo time into :60s, :90s and :120s to create "samples" of programming that might appeal to loyal viewers of the other networks.
Mr. Schweitzer said CBS will use a proprietary media planning model to identify when heavy viewers of the other networks tune in to watch their favorite CBS shows, at which point they will receive the "samples."