Fifth Estater: Wiser Plan for Local Cable News
Bright House Networks VP Elliott Wiser takes the fight to broadcast
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/16/2009 2:00:00 AM
Elliott Wiser is, to borrow a sports analogy, a student of the local cable news game. Last spring, the Bright House Networks VP completed an arduous online master's program, with his 82-page thesis focusing on the history of 24-hour local news. Wiser's research brought him face to face with several cable news pioneers, such as News 12's Chuck Dolan and NECN founder Phil Balboni. The experience taught him a tremendous amount about his day-to-day business.
The thesis also taught Wiser to think twice about getting his master's while running a dozen local cable channels and being a father and husband. “It was pretty fascinating to go through that, but that thesis took four years of my life,” he says with a laugh. “It was a ton of work.”
Hard work has never been an issue for the Elizabeth, N.J., native, who manages Tampa's Bay News 9, the Orlando market's News 13 and the rest of Bright House's local channels. Not content merely to run a pesky newshound fighting for respect from the better-funded broadcast stations, Wiser is focused on taking the fight to the more established newsrooms. “We're very much a player,” he says. “The other general managers will grudgingly admit they look at Bay News 9 and strategize against it.”
Promoted to Bright House Corporate News and Local Programming VP last year after more than a decade as VP/general manager at Bay News 9, Wiser put in ample time in the broadcast business—toiling as a reporter, an anchor and, finally, a news director. He credits Rich Pegram, whom he calls a mentor, for giving him a shot at management at WTVR Richmond back in the mid-1980s, when Pegram boosted his then-morning anchor to news director.
Now competing against his former protégé as general manager at Scripps station WFTS Tampa, Pegram says Wiser's entrepreneurial sense made him an obvious front-office candidate. “Elliott had superior journalism skills and great storytelling skills, and he understood the business parts of television,” Pegram says. “He could do it all.”
While he's pretty busy running his group of channels—which also includes a host of Spanish-language offerings and the 24-hour Bright House Sports Network, which was expanded to include both Tampa and Orlando in September—Wiser does occasionally still pop up on the air. For one thing, he hosts a series of wine segments for Tampa Bay On Demand.
And while wine is a labor of love for Wiser (when prompted, he suggests a few unheralded reds coming out of New Zealand and Australia), being on-air is a labor he doesn't much miss. “It was fun while it lasted,” he says, “but I like being in charge of things.”
When not focused on extending the various channels' reach (Bright House acquired the group from Time Warner Cable in 2003), the 52-year-old Wiser enjoys unwinding with family (you'll find him working the stopwatch at daughter Ashley's swim meets), working out, conducting his wine research and awaiting the start of the new Tampa Bay Rays season. A lifelong Yankees fan, Wiser now holds Rays season tickets and enjoys basking in this new Florida trend called Rays Mania.
“This time of year, people are usually talking about [March Madness],” he says. “Now, everywhere you go, everyone's talking Rays Rays Rays.”
Rising to the World Series last fall after a decade of futility, the Rays are perhaps the ultimate Cinderella story. One could make a similar case for those Bright House news channels going head to head with their broadcast counterparts. Wiser says Bay News 9 is tops in households at 5-7 a.m. among homes with Bright House cable and holds its own in the greater Tampa DMA, despite only being available in around 60% of the market's homes. News 13, meanwhile, comes in at No. 2 in Orlando at 5-7 a.m., he says.
Pegram, for one, treats the cable upstart as a worthy competitor. “It's been Elliott's vision to run it as if it were a local television station—breaking news, engaged in the community,” he says. “They are a factor in the marketplace.”
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