It was 20 years ago tonight. Not exactly. It was actually four days off, on Nov. 25, but what really matters is it was the night before Thanksgiving in 1998.
I had been producing the 11pm news at CBS affiliate WFSB-3 in Connecticut. It was my last newscast there, before moving to Philadelphia – and also the last weathercast for the legendary Hilton Kaderli, who retired that night.
In fact, Hilton and I just got off the phone. He and his family are doing great. He mentioned he had just been doing a bit of work in his study, and his wife is working on their Thanksgiving turkey as I publish this!
The reason for both of us leaving the same night was, back then, TV stations depended on Nielsen ratings. That company picked times around four months to measure viewership. Then, starting on a Thursday and ending on a Wednesday – every November, February, May and July – networks and stations would go all out to show you their best programming along with their sexiest, dirtiest, most dangerous and practically anything to get you to watch. No vacations were allowed, so the A-team would be on every newscast, every day and night.
In 1998 – for the first and last time, I believe – Nielsen ended the ratings period on the night before Thanksgiving rather than the week before, postponing or canceling news people’s vacation plans.
Stations still use those times to have their on-air people announce retirements, reveal health issues, and more to get you to watch – even though Nielsen now realizes there are more than four months in a year, and doesn’t ask randomly selected viewers to fill out diaries about what they watch anymore. Old habits are hard to break.
The 11pm news was arguably most important (financially, why else?) because it followed the network’s huge primetime audience, and had 35 minutes to fill commercials, rather than the typical 30 for a half hour. Stations would then sell ads based on the ratings for at least the next few months, while also looking at year-to-year. People’s jobs depended on good ratings.
This was my first job outside of Florida, my first time in New England cold and my first time living away from home (except for college).
Downtown Hartford was basically a dead center of a doughnut, but not the night before Thanksgiving. (Why weren’t we live from outside?) The day before Thanksgiving was still busy with travel. (Yes, we had a live picture.)
Since then, the station moved from there, two towns south to Rocky Hill. (Yes, Weathersfield and Rocky Hill are towns, while Hartford is a city!)
These days, Al Terzi – the dean of Connecticut TV news, who actually spent some time in West Palm Beach – moderates a weekly political show on WTIC-Fox 61. Denise D’Ascenzo is still at it at Channel 3 after 32 years (and will always be my shiksa sister!), but gets to drive home at a decent hour. No more Nightbeat for her! We can all see and hear Joe Tessitore on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
I thank Tom Lowell, Steve Sabato and Deborah Johnson for the opportunity. I followed Tom up from Miami.
Plus, my friend Megan Robinson who followed me up and started producing weekend mornings, before becoming an executive producer in Charlotte. We went to dinner every Sunday night in a different town so we could study the state we covered.
Reporters Dennis House (now anchoring and also blogging, so I get a weekly email to keep up with the area!), Jennifer Watson (in Atlanta), Melissa Francis (Fox Business) and Susan Raff (still there!) found news or followed up on developing stories, sometimes live so late and further away than they would’ve liked to have been.
Assignment editor Andre Hepkins left WFSB and returned as a reporter. Now, he’s a big-time anchor in Baltimore. And Dana Luby kept getting promotion after promotion and recently went from long-time news director of the station to its general manager! Plus, Mike Guerrieri (Vice President of Creative Services at NBC’s Miami station) with the prime-time teases that kept so many viewers up longer than they would’ve liked.
Of course, I’ll never forget the late, great newscast director Jeff Bright. And I’ll never be able to mention everyone whose work went into making the newscast such a success, so please forgive me.
We were a #1 team. I should’ve made more of it. Come to think of it, I think I fought like hell with every one of the people mentioned at least once (except Gayle)! Every one of cared that much and made each other better.
I mentioned I ended up moving to Philadelphia. I stayed six years, returned to Miami for some time before getting back to Philadelphia (for Part B, as this post’s title suggests).
Click here for how The Hartford Courant reported that day.
Now, to the video!
1 of 3: Lots of touches I remember starting, the New England Patriots’ move to Hartford(!), Hilton’s memories, and perhaps a record number of municipalities mentioned in the first tease instead of the typical three
2 of 3: Michael J. Fox reveals he has Parkinson’s and Hilton’s final forecast
3 of 3: Sports, Hilton’s final good-bye and classic clips
(Why didn’t I get an on-air mention after 19-1/2 months?)
Gayle King’s friend Oprah joins Hilton on weather in 1992
And click here to read and watch the most memorable moment in WFSB history (at least involving Hilton)!
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Same thing in New England. Their team was in the Super Bowl and they don’t get sick of Tom Brady nor Bill Belichick. They watch.
But what about the rest of America? Apparently two thirds of Americans did not watch. And this was the Super Bowl!
Imagine how that would translate to Thursday night National Football League games, known for having bad matchups and also being available on the NFL Network and streaming, besides being broadcast on a local TV station.
But three weeks ago, Fox decided to pay a fortune — $3.3 billion for the rights for five years, and expanded digital highlight rights — and the money it’ll cost is going to trickle down to you and me.
Let’s talk schedules, the reason and then the money.
(Not many remember Fox trying to take Monday Night Football from founder ABC back in early 1987, even before it started programming. That didn’t work and it took until 1994 for Fox to get an NFL package. Oh, and five times as much money as CBS would bid!)
These days, Fox doesn’t have much of a regular Thursday night lineup. The NFL would draw viewers.
“We look forward to continuing our terrific long-term partnership with the NFL on Sunday afternoons with more than 100 games per season (Lenny: many in markets where the home teams are playing) including next year’s Super Bowl LIII.”
The last NFL schedule expansion was in 1987 when ESPN started carrying some Sunday night games. It was the first time the NFL aired games on cable and they only took place in the second half of the regular season. Two years later, the NFL added games on TNT in the season’s first half. TNT aired those games until 1997, when ESPN took the whole season. Like today, games in each competing team’s home market also aired on a regular TV station, so the games were not cable-exclusive but close. But the arrangement ended after the 2005 season.
That’s because NBC had no football for seven seasons and was desperate to get it back. It had lost AFC team away games to CBS, which itself had been outbid by Fox for NFC team away games.
NBC was given flexible-scheduling for most of the second half of the season, meaning it can “steal” regular Sunday games from CBS or Fox that are better than what was on its original schedule, and the whole country can watch.
When that happens, NBC will tell the league at least 12 days (two Tuesdays) before, and move that CBS or Fox game to NBC. However, CBS and Fox can “protect” five Sunday afternoon games over six weeks, weeks 11-16. Also, the league can move games between 1pm to the more-watched 4pm ET slot.
Now that you understand that, Thursday night games were actually added back in 2006 and air on The NFL Network, so the NFL could push cable and satellite companies to carry the network very few people were able to watch (and thus charge the subscribers more, which is the crux of this post).
It wasn’t until 2014 that Thursday Night Football got real recognition. The NFL decided to let a network produce the game – which would air on The NFL Network — but let the producing network simulcast some of the games. That’s what CBS did in 2014 and 2015, and NBC joined to split the Thursday package in 2016 and 2017. The contracts for the rights were short.
That’s when Fox decided to pay a fortune – much more money – for a longer period of time, over five years.
There are several reasons, which may or may not turn out to be right.
Add the Thursday rights fee of $3.3 billion to the cost of producing all the games, estimated to be even more than that, and you wonder how Fox will pay for it all.
That’s where you and I come in.
For years, if a TV station wanted to appear on a cable or satellite company’s lineup, then the cable or satellite company would have to pay the TV station. Otherwise, the TV station could take away the right to carry it, the station would not air on the cable or satellite company’s lineup, the viewers wouldn’t be able to watch it, both sides would blame each other, and finally there would be a secret agreement and our prices would go up.
That happens all the time.
But the TV station doesn’t get to keep all that money the cable or satellite companies pay it. The networks figure they’re the reason the TV stations are worth so much to the cable and satellite companies, and demand their share in retransmission fees.
Also, it used to be that a network would pay its affiliates in every city to carry its commercials (which kept them in business), and the programming that surrounds them (that attracts more people to the commercials and therefore more money). That has been completely reversed and it’s called – of all things – reverse comp, meaning compensation. The stations now pay the networks.
And when a network decides to pay for a special event, it asks its affiliates to help out.
He also says it can happen to stations in AFC markets because Thursday night games have teams from all over competing, not mostly the NFC but nearly equally the AFC.
That means Fox stations can expect a call from the network demanding more money for providing better programming – especially in cities with NFL teams – and that may not be so bad, considering what Fox airs on Thursday nights these days? (Do you know?)
And where will these stations get that extra money? Sure, selling ads for higher prices, but also demanding to charge your cable or satellite company more when its contract is up — Fox will insist they do — and that will raise your bill.
It has been estimated cable and satellite companies pay ESPN about $6 per month per subscriber. Think about what your cable or satellite bill is. Do you watch ESPN? Would you be willing to go without it and save $6 every month? If your answer is yes, then do you have a choice?
It’s the same story here, but on a much lower, local level. We may be talking about a quarter – 25 cents – every month for the local station if Fox gets Thursday Night Football. Check out your bill and see what you’re paying for local stations (as a whole) every month. And while you’re at it, see what it costs to get your regional sports networks.
And besides calling on stations, New Fox — much smaller after selling what it plans to sell — needs to make money somehow.
It has two possibilities and is reportedly looking into both.
First is to air as many live events as possible. Scripted sitcoms and dramas are expensive. Live programming, especially sports that’s also expensive, is supposed to draw viewers.
Second is to buy more stations. A TV station used to be a license to print money. That’s not the case anymore, with so much competition and paying networks instead of getting paid by them, but life isn’t so bad.
However, there is concern that in the filing, Sinclair said it has buyers for New York and Chicago, and it intends to run the stations through an “options and services agreement” with those buyers. Media watchdog groups have long criticized Sinclair for using shared-services agreements to control stations without owning them, which they see as a loophole around the FCC’s ownership rules.
Sinclair did admit there are eight cities — including Seattle, St. Louis, Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City — where it needs to sell a station to comply with FCC rules on the number of stations a single owner can have in a given market. But again, Sinclair said it has buyers for Seattle, Oklahoma City, and Greensboro, N.C., so it can continue operating those stations after a sale.
On the other hand, Sinclair also made a case it should be able to own more than one of the top four stations in Harrisburg, Indianapolis and Greensboro, N.C.
Last week, The Times learned from New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone and two congressional aides, “The top internal watchdog for the F.C.C. opened an investigation into whether Mr. Pai and his aides had improperly pushed for the rule changes and whether they had timed them to benefit Sinclair.”
People strongly opposed to the mega-deal argue it would reduce the number of voices in media and diminish coverage of local news.
So Fox wants to buy more stations and number one is KCPQ, its Seattle affiliate in the home of the NFC’s Seahawks, and where Sinclair already owns a competing station.
Other NFL cities where Fox doesn’t already own a station are the next biggest possibilities. Keep in mind, we don’t how how the late news of Sinclair’s FCC filing and the FCC’s inspector general’s investigation could change or stop things.
Preseason doesn’t count. Those rights are usually bought locally. Not all of the NFC games air on Fox. Not when an AFC team comes to town. Not when the game is on Sunday or Monday nights, or Thursday night until now.
And a competing station can be the local team’s “official station” even if its network doesn’t carry the games. That means special promotions with the team, greater access and maybe a show with the coach. Not too bad.