THE REFUSAL of many Fox affiliates to air the network's spectacularly ill-considered interview with O.J. Simpson finally brought Rupert Murdoch and his colleagues at News Corp. to their senses on Monday. They scrapped the interview and the release of Simpson's ostensibly hypothetical treatise, "If I Did It."
Much ink has already been spent in attempting to answer — or merely to scream out — the what-were-they-thinking question. Whatever the case, well after the public furor dies down, News Corp.'s blunder may haunt its business interests in the long-standing political tug of war between television networks and their affiliate stations. Fox has handed its affiliates the perfect excuse to continue insisting in coming years that there is a public interest in preserving their right to pre-empt network programming.
That is unfortunate. The affiliates were right to balk at the Simpson interview, but most times when local TV stations pass on network programming it is not for high-minded, public-interest reasons. More typically, they do so out of economic interest (to sell more local ads) or because they want to avoid putting on programs they consider offensive. So, for example, Sinclair Broadcast Group famously decided that the ABC stations it owned wouldn't air the "Nightline" episode in 2004 featuring Ted Koppel reading the names of members of the U.S. military killed in Iraq. That same year, many ABC affiliates balked at airing Steven Spielberg's World War II epic, "Saving Private Ryan." The ability of affiliates to turn down programming hampers networks' creativity and risk-taking.
Network affiliates (which aren't always local in that they are often owned by broadcast companies such as Sinclair or Tribune, owner of this newspaper) have been gaining leverage in recent years, just as the rationale for their power to stand up to networks is fading. Media ownership rules that limited how much of the national audience a network could reach through stations it owned directly were written out of a concern that a network could wield too much power if it controlled the means of distribution and content. At a time when most people obtain their TV fare by way of cable or satellite, and when there are far more channels, this is an antiquated concern.
Networks, led by Fox, have wanted to buy more of their affiliates, yet independent owners have used their clout in Congress to prevent the move. Affiliates also have pushed back at network attempts to contractually limit how much prime-time programming they can reject.
In a cable-dominated era, it no longer makes sense for the government to interfere with efforts by broadcast networks to control the distribution of their fare by propping up these intermediaries. It's hard to stand up for a network's right to air an interview with O.J. Simpson during TV's sweeps period. But a strengthening of affiliates' censorial power is unlikely to make for better TV.