Sinclair and Fox work out new deal Network to continue on WBFF-TV at least through August 2001

September 07, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and the Fox Television network kissed and made up yesterday, announcing a deal to renew the Fox affiliation of eight Sinclair-owned stations months after the two companies had a public spat.

The deal means that WBFF-TV in Baltimore will remain Fox 45 at least through August 2001 -- and possibly for five more years, if a Fox option to extend the deal another five years is triggered.

"What's been rumored is nothing more than a rumor," said Sinclair regional director Steven Marx, dismissing speculation that Sinclair and Fox would split. "We've been, in our view, a strong supporter of Fox and a very strong Fox affiliate. We see them going forward as no different than ABC, NBC or CBS, maybe better."

However, less than nine months ago, the two sides had an odd public confrontation after Fox dumped Sinclair stations in Raleigh, N.C., and Norfolk, Va., in favor of other outlets.

Sinclair responded with a press release announcing the change in Raleigh, which doesn't take effect until 1998, and poor-mouthing the quality of Fox programming, and with an interview in which Sinclair's finance chief noted that the finances of its Milwaukee station improved after an earlier Fox defection.

But a lot has changed since then.

Sinclair became a much more powerful force for Fox to deal with in April, when it announced its $1.2 billion takeover of River City Broadcasting L.P., whose 10 stations, including two Fox affiliates, helped make Sinclair the nation's seventh-biggest television station company with 28 outlets it owns or operates.

"If you look back at the time the River City deal was consummated, [River City chief] Barry Baker's relationship with Fox was credited by analysts with being one of the key factors in the acquisition," Sinclair corporate finance director Patrick Talamantes said. "Barry is on the Fox affiliate board and has an excellent relationship with Fox. With a company that operates as many stations as we do, we need to take a broader view of our network relationships, and Fox is a very important player."

And some things hadn't changed, especially the limited number of stations available for Fox to jump to in some markets, including Baltimore.

The three traditional network affiliate stations in town are all tied to their current networks through early in the 21st century as a result of agreements signed before the so-called "Great Network Switch" that took effect in early 1995. Those deals deprived Fox of any other local station with which to place its programs, and Sinclair of any viable options to replace Fox, leaving only the fledgling Warner Bros. network as an alternative.

Warner Bros. runs in Baltimore on a tiny station affiliated with Towson State University.

"The only available network right now without a [Baltimore] home is Warner Brothers," Marx said. "We've had discussions with Warner Brothers with regard to our company, but I don't think Baltimore is an opportunity because of our relationship with Paramount."

Sinclair's other Baltimore outlet, WNUV-TV (Channel 54), is affiliated with the United Paramount Network, Warner Bros. rival for acceptance as the fifth major network. Sinclair runs Channel 54 under a contract with that station's owner.

Marcellus Alexander, general manager at Baltimore CBS affiliate WJZ-TV (Channel 13), said WJZ was unavailable to Fox because its owner, Westinghouse Electric Corp., took over the CBS network this year. And the prospective new network being planned by ex-Fox executive Barry Diller was not available to Sinclair because Diller's company owns Channel 24 in Baltimore, which runs home shopping full-time.

Yesterday's deal also covers stations in Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio; San Antonio, Texas; Flint, Mich.; Lexington, Ky.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Peoria, Ill.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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