The issue is whether or not ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will develop affiliate networks in cyberspace like the ones they have over the airwaves.
The broadcast networks all received a wake-up call in January when Warner Bros. Online presented plans for its CityWeb service (www.cityweb.com).
CityWeb promises to deliver content to local TV station sites that they could not otherwise afford. Furthermore, the service will provide stations with various templates so they can easily include local sports and other offerings in their sites.
CityWeb also promises to help stations place classified ads on their sites, a factor which could be an important revenue generator down the line.
The cost to stations is commercial time in their afternoon newscasts. Using a barter/syndication model, Warner Bros. will then sell that time as an unwired network to advertisers.
NBC, ABC RESPOND
NBC responded hurriedly with its own offering, NBC Interactive Neighborhood, scheduled for a soft launch this fall.
ABC, meanwhile, is developing its service around ABCNews.com, which launched last month. ABC's online network is expected to mix national content from ABC and Disney with a station's localized content.
ABC and NBC, in their presentations to stations, are not asking for specific TV airtime. Instead, they want to split ad revenues and commercial transactions on the site.
"Anticipointment"-lots of anticipation followed by disappointment-is how one local TV station executive characterized the financial offerings of all the parties thus far.
`JOCKEYING FOR POSITION'
"We're at the stage now where both sides are jockeying for position," said Stuart Beck, president of Granite Broadcasting Corp. "The stations are saying, `You pay us,' and the networks are saying, `No, you pay me."'
Granite, one of the the more astute station groups on the Web, has ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates, and Mr. Beck has seen the CityWeb, ABC and NBC presentations. "They all have some very positive aspects, either content-wise, graphically, or both," he explained. "But thus far my attitude has been, really, who needs them?"
If a local affiliate hooks up with ABC, and a user wants to see entertainment news, ABC links with Mr. Showbiz, a service of Starwave Corp.
"I don't see the point of that," Mr. Beck said. "Why do I want to send my loyal viewer in Peoria, Ill., to Mr. Showbiz? Doesn't Paul Allen [co-owner of Starwave] have enough money?"
Though local stations will split ad revenue with sites to which they send traffic, Mr. Beck and some other station group managers are not impressed.
`MAKE SENSE OF CHAOS'
Mr. Beck said users dial into local station Web sites for local news, local weather and local sports. "Then, once they are there, a service we can provide is making sense of the Web for them. Make sense of the chaos."
To do that Granite has hooked up with Yahoo! so users can do searches right from the Granite TV station sites. But he doesn't dismiss the other efforts.
"Is there some value to having access to worldwide and national news and sports?" he asked. "Yes. And a CNN through CityWeb, or an NBC or an ABC does a good job in doing that. So I say to CNN, or NBC, or ABC, pay me, and I'll link to you."