Dennis Swanson: Man With the Midas Touch
Creating success at every stop, and finding it in Oprah and Regis and Kathie Lee
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/23/2012 12:01:00 AM
"He looks big and gru! , but he has a heart as big as all outdoors," says former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who started as Swanson's competitor and ended up his close friend. Last year, Ebersol was a recipient of NATPE's Brandon Tartiko! Legacy Award; this year, he will be presenting that same honor to Swanson.
Swanson has been president of station operations for Fox Television Stations since 2005, but he's been in broadcasting for his entire 45-year career. He has held top jobs at all four major broadcast networks- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
In fact, Ebersol calls Swanson "without question, the finest operator of large-city television stations who ever lived."
The secret to Swanson's success comes from knowing what works and sticking to it.
"The trick for us in over-the-air television is that it's still all about content," says Swanson. "Whatever people are watching, it had better be something they want to see and relates to them."
Swanson comes from a solid news background, having worked in television news since graduating from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, in 1966 with a master's degree. In between getting his undergraduate and graduate degrees, Swanson spent two years as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps.
He showed a flair for the craft early, winning the Radio and Television News Directors Association's National Award in 1967. From then until 1976, he continued to hone his skills in various radio and television jobs in Iowa, Chicago and New York.
In 1976, Swanson moved to KABC Los Angeles to work as executive producer and later news director, winning the prestigious Peabody Award in 1978. In 1981, he moved up a notch when he was promoted to station manager.
By 1983, he returned to Chicago to run ABC's WLS. While there, he discovered a young African-American woman who seemed to have a real a% nity for the camera. He instantly knew he wanted her on his station, and when the Oprah Winfrey-hosted A.M. Chicago launched in early 1984, it was an instant hit. The Oprah Winfrey Show launched in national syndication in 1986, at Swanson's urging.
"The very first day I was on the air in Chicago, I walked out into the street and realized that something big had happened," says Winfrey. "By the end of the week, it was difficult for me to walk down the street. Every single person knew who I was. I'd been in television since I was 19 so I was accustomed to being recognized, but even I was surprised by the speed of this. I'm forever grateful to Dennis because he's the one who told me to just be myself."
Winfrey wasn't the first-or last-talent that Swanson recognized and promoted into bigger and better things. In 1985, he became the president of ABC Television Stations, headquartered in New York. While there, he paired Regis Philbin with Kathie Lee Gifford. Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee hit the national stage in 1988.
More than 25 years later, TV stations are in just as great a need of top talent, but " nding them is tougher than ever, says Swanson.
"Oprah and Regis are exceptional talents, and that only comes along so often," says Swanson. "Those kinds of opportunities are pretty rare in our industry, but that's not to say that at some point some exceptional talent couldn't be identified in one of our 9 a.m. newscasts and turned into something we can syndicate."
In 1986, Swanson was named president of ABC Sports, where he saw Monday Night Football top the ratings charts and worked with the International Olympics Committee to alternate the Winter and Summer Olympics every two years. It was during his tenure at ABC Sports that he met Ebersol.
"From afar, I always felt disinclined to like Dennis," says Ebersol. "It was only when I started to get to know him in the early '90s...that we realized we considered each other good guys."
Ebersol and Swanson were attending a Chicago White Sox game in 1993 (in the owner's box, natch) when they cooked up the idea of launching a baseball network. CBS was about to end its contract with Major League Baseball, and the rights were up for grabs.
After a series of meetings, the two led a team through the launch of The Baseball Network, which operated on a revenue share with MLB.
Unfortunately, timing is everything. In 1994, baseball went on strike, and the network was forced to go dark in 1995. But Swanson and Ebersol's friendship was cemented.
In 1996, ABC and ESPN combined their sports resources, leaving Swanson without a job. Ebersol put in a good word, and Swanson came to NBC to run WNBC New York.
"For the first time in its long and glorious history, WNBC became the No. 1 station in the market," says Ebersol.
Swanson stayed at WNBC until 2002, then surprised the broadcasting world by jumping to Viacom (now CBS), where he ran the station group until 2005.
Since Swanson has been at Fox, the stations have steadily strengthened, focusing on news and information as their core businesses and buying syndicated product around that philosophy.
"If you look at any kind of research, people's No. 1 source for news is their local TV station," says Swanson. "News works very well for us and we are very competitive in most of our markets. With news, you have the advantage of programming your own stations without relying on outside sources."
Swanson, 73, has had a long and fruitful career and a life full of family and many friends, but Ebersol never expects him to stop working in the business he loves. "I don't see him retiring. He still travels around the country and he's indefatigable. He's always been a guy who delivered big-time, and that's what he'll keep doing."
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