Up on the penthouse FLoor of the Westin building in downtown Seattle, Ben Tucker is livid. The local TV executive feels he's losing control of his company's product. "We don't want to be a McDonald's franchisee that makes the same televised Big Mac every time," complains Tucker, president of Fisher Communications, the parent company of KOMO TV. The former Navy officer recently signed a petition to the FCC, asking for an investigation into strong-arm and possibly illegal tactics by the big networks. Local stations like Tucker's KOMO TV are feeling squeezed.

The petition, released for public comment last week by the FCC, was written by a TV station lobbying group that Tucker helped create. The Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, or NASA, was created 15 years ago by Tucker, then a manager of the RETLAW Disney radio stations (RETLAW is "Walter" Disney spelled backwards). The petition, which Seattle TV stations KING 5 and KIRO 7 also signed, claims that NBC, CBS, FOX, and ABC are engaging in anti-competitive behavior, violating FCC law, and forcing local stations to run nationally syndicated programs over local news. Sure, Seattle TV news isn't anything to write home about, but if the charges are true, networks could crush the stations' ability to ever redeem themselves.

According to Tucker, KOMO continually feels pressure from ABC to forego certain programming. That type of pressure is illegal under FCC law. "The networks like to control content," says Tucker from his top-floor office. "When the Kingdome was brought down last year, ABC didn't like the fact that some of their Sunday morning programming was being preempted," he says, stroking his graying goatee.

Local stations run popular and expensive shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? that advertisers die for. If the shows or the commercials get interrupted for any reason, be it Kingdome implosion or nuclear war, the big boys get pissed. (By the way, part of the reason Tucker feels free to speak his mind is that Fisher raked in $210 million in revenues last year, dominating the advertising pie in the Seattle market.)

During the baseball playoffs last year, stations all over the country were pressured by NBC to ignore the presidential debates, claims the petition. "It's just sad," says NASA chairman Allen Frank, who began his career in TV by sweeping floors and hanging lights in a Pittsburgh station. "NBC originally said, 'No, you have to stick to baseball.' But they got so much shit from the press for it they eventually changed their mind. I'm sorry, but you shouldn't have to negotiate over presidential debates, for Christ's sake!"

Local TV stations also say the networks are using their increasing size and power to stifle station independence. (Disney owns ABC, Viacom owns CBS, News Corporation owns Fox, and General Electric owns NBC.) Glenn Wright, vice president of KING 5 programming, says because the networks have gotten so big, they're creating their own TV shows and pushing them on local stations.

In the past, networks relied heavily on Hollywood-produced shows, which were extremely expensive. (For example, E.R., which runs on KING 5, costs NBC roughly $13 million per episode.) Now, because the networks are so well financed, they can afford to make their own shows. "They're making their own Oprahs, their own Millionaire shows, and it's becoming harder and harder to run local programming," says Wright.

Furthermore, the petition claims, station managers are afraid to speak out. "A lot of local affiliates are concerned about being identified for fear of retaliation by the networks," a local station employee told The Stranger, under condition of anonymity. In fact, the petition was originally just a formal complaint by unlisted stations. However, when the FCC scared local stations by announcing that it was considering raising the number of TV stations a network could own, NASA got smart politically and made the petition public. In fact, Tucker said, lawyers for Fisher and KOMO TV are currently drafting a second petition to be filed with the FCC shortly.