What Happens When TV Networks Merge?

The battle of the network affiliates.

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On Tuesday, CBS and Warner Bros. announced a surprise deal to merge two broadcast television networks. Starting this fall, UPN and the WB will become a single network called “CW” that features each network’s most popular shows. That means there will be lots of cities where two channels—the stations that used to air UPN and the WB—will compete for programming from a single network. In those situations will one of the channels go dark?

Maybe. It all depends on what happens with the new network’s affiliation agreements, which give local stations the right to air its programming. Given the structure of the industry, many of these new deals are no-brainers. The CW network will air on 12 big-market stations owned by CBS and on another 16 run by Tribune Co.—which owns a significant portion of the WB. That means about half of all viewers will see the new network on a CBS or Tribune-owned station.

Independently owned stations that now broadcast UPN or WB may be in trouble. If they’re up against a CBS or Tribune station, they’ve got no chance of getting the new network. Otherwise, they’ll have to compete on the basis of their local popularity, placement on the dial, or other factors. What happens if a station can’t get a new network affiliation? It will have to switch to a full lineup of syndicated and local programming—or go out of business. (Keep in mind that networks provide programs for only certain hours of the day; most local stations already fill out their schedules with quite a bit of syndicated material.)

In general, a local station doesn’t have to worry about losing its network deal because it has a long-term affiliation agreement in place. But CBS and Warner Bros. chose this year for the merger because several of their biggest affiliation agreements were about to end. UPN’s deal with nine stations owned by Fox was up for renewal. So was WB’s arrangement with 17 stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting.

Stations with deals that haven’t yet expired aren’t likely to get much protection, either. Agreements vary, but they often include special provisions for early termination. (In this one, for example, Fox has reserved the right to bow out if its parent company acquires a station in the same market.) Broadcasters expect ongoing agreements with UPN and the WB to be moot once the two networks cease to exist.

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Explainer thanks Paul Koplin of Spartan TV and Robert Thompson of Syracuse University. Thanks also to reader David Weissmann for asking the question.