What happens when TV networks merge?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 25 2006 6:12 PM

What Happens When TV Networks Merge?

The battle of the network affiliates.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here. The Explainer now has its own free daily podcast; click here to learn more.

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.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate


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.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

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



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.