Dennis Swanson Has Broadcasters’ Backs
Fox Stations executive with decades in the business praises enduring power of local TV
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/27/2012 12:01:00 AM
Swanson spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about what the Golden Mike honor means to him. An edited transcript follows.
What are your thoughts as you receive the Golden Mike?
This is about the event and the Broadcasters Foundation. The important thing isn’t that Dennis Swanson gets some kind of award, it’s that the foundation exists to raise money to help the downtrodden in our field. That is a growing group of people in the environment we’re in. A Joplin [Missouri tornado last May] comes along and people at the radio stations are wiped out, or a Nashville flood comes along. We try to help people from those areas who are broadcasters get back on their feet.
That’s the significance of the Golden Mike event. It’s the people who come to the benefit, and the companies that raise money that is distributed to people who have been part of our business and need financial help at this time. It’s pretty hard to argue with that as a concept.
What’s your concern level over the Federal Communications Commission and spectrum?
We’re a heavily regulated business because we deal with airwaves the public owns. The FCC is charged with responsibility for that, so we have a relationship that we have to maintain. And we try to be as good citizens as we can in that regard and work with them. We’ve been through a lot with the digital transition, which was not an easy process for anybody—the government or the television stations. It’s sorted out now, and hopefully we keep positive relationships with the people who monitor us and move forward.
You sound more optimistic than others about this.
As somebody who ran a television station in New York when 9-11 occurred, I just know what over-the-air television meant to the tri-state area. There are people from all walks of life, all political dimensions, who universally praised the media, specifi cally television, for the positive impact it had on keeping the community bound together after 9-11. There’s obviously tremendous need for free over-the-air television in this country. I think the people in Washington recognize that. When hurricanes and snowstorms pass through Washington, where do people turn? Over-the-air television stations in Washington, D.C. It puts the spectrum issues in a little bit different light.
Might Fox make some station acquisitions this year?
That’s probably a better question for [News Corp. COO] Chase Carey and [Fox Television Stations CEO] Jack Abernethy. But as long as you’re asking me, you’ve seen some major acquisitions this past year by people in our business. I would hope that our leadership would look favorably if the right circumstance came along. I don’t think you run out and buy television stations because you can. But if it’s the right fit, I hope they’ll give positive consideration.
What about selling?
It pained me to sell the ones we did a few years ago. Those were great TV stations, most of them No. 1’s, with such good people in them. That was a painful process, particularly for me going around the country, [meeting] with the local TV people. I pray to God I don’t have to go through that again.
You sound like you’re talking about losing family members…
We thought of those stations and those people in that regard. We still have a relationship with them because they are Fox affiliates.
Do you miss working at a TV station?
One of the most fun jobs in the whole business is to run a television station. Whether you’re in a big, medium or small market, there is no greater job than running a TV station. I miss that. But I’ve done that.
The business has been great to me. I’ve had wonderful jobs, whether on the network side or the local side. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed running a television station. It’s why, when I left the network business, I went back to local television. I got a lot of satisfaction from local television. Fortunately, I had some success and got promoted, and that’s allowed me to take care of my family.
Whom do you consider mentors?
I've had a number of them, but the person I would give the most credit to is my [former] professor at the University of Illinois, Henry Lippolt. I was a young kid putting myself through a public university and he took me under his wing. I learned a tremendous amount about television, about news from him. I became his graduate assistant-he helped me get my masters degree when I got out of the Marine Corps. One of things I'll always be glad I did was, they needed equipment at the University of Illinois and I donated some resources so they could buy this equipment. I did it in honor of Henry Lippolt because of the impact he had on me and my life.
I've worked with some great people, include my present bosses, Jack Abernethy and Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, who've been wonderful to me the six years I've been there. But it all started with Henry back in late ‘50s.
Has your Marines background shaped your career?
No question-one of reasons I think I've had some success in this business is the leadership training that I got in the Marine Corps. When you're a 22-23-year-old and you're in front of 43 Marines every morning and they're looking you over and you're looking them over, you better have it together. When you train to go to war, you better know what you're doing. I learned, the Marines don't just commission you then send you out. You have to go to basics school six months before they put you in charge of other Marines. That's tremendous training; I've always benefited from the fact that I had a graduate course in leadership.
When you think about our industry, we do very little to train our managers. Who becomes news director? Probably someone who's the best news [person]. But we don't really train that person in regards to management leadership. It's a tremendous advantage.
I'm proud that I served my country. I wanted to serve as a Marine. When I was a kid growing up, Ted Williams was my idol. I'm not a Red Sox fan; I'm a Chicago Cubs fan. Ted Williams was left-handed, I'm a lefty. I just thought he was the best baseball player I'd ever seen. He was a Marine pilot, so I said I wanted be a Marine pilot. Ted Williams had eyes that would allow him to see the rotation on a pitch as it came out of the pitcher's hand-that's why he could hit .406. I couldn't hit .406-I didn't have good enough eyes, and my eyes weren't good enough to be a pilot. I was an infantry officer, but he was my inspiration to go to the Marine Corps.
Did you play sports?
I was a basketball manager at the University of Illinois. I played organized basketball for a number of years, in the Marines and afterwards. I was not good enough to play Big 10 but I wanted to be part of it at Illinois, which was a very good program. I had great teammates. Jerry Colangelo was an Illini in those days, we're still good friends. Mannie Jackson, who owns the Harlem Globetrotters, was captain of the team. David Downey, who became trustee at the University of Illinois. Men like that were involved at the time and it was great to be a part of it.
What was your style of playing basketball?
I was a gunner. I wanted the ball and wanted to shoot it. I couldn't jump very high and wasn't a great defensive player, but I could shoot the ball and wasn't afraid to.
You used to run ABC Sports. Are you surprised by what sports rights are going for these days?
Yes and no. The big guys are going to get their numbers and the little guys aren't, like anything else. The NFL is such a successful product on television that they can command the kind of numbers they're getting because you almost can't be without it. I'm a little surprised the Olympics got such a big fee. You don't want to lose money on the Olympics. I'm surprised they were able to command the kind of fee they got last round, particularly with the locations-Sochi, Russia, that's gonna be a toughie. Brazil, with the time zone matchup, back to South Korea-time-wise, it's a toughie, and no one knows where the next one is. I'm a little surprised at that.
I'm not surprised that the NFL generated the money it's gotten. If you don't spend that kind of money and stay in the NFL business-you've seen what happen to those that got out of it.
Describe a Fox-owned television station.
That's an interesting question because we have a variety of different kinds of stations in the division. We really don't have a cookie cutter approach because you have some of the old New World stations: traditional network affiliates, a long time in the news business-a Detroit, a Dallas, an Atlanta, a Tampa, a Phoenix, stations like that. Then you have the old Metromedia stations, which were always big-market independents-Washington and New York and LA-in that category. Then you have the stations that were big-market UHFs: no newses, really built on entertainment and sports-that's Boston and Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago.
You have such a different mix of stations. So we don't have a standard approach; I think you have to deal with each situation individually. Our challenge is our opportunity. We only get two hours a day from our network. That means we have 22 hours to program. One thing we have done at all our stations, regardless of their background, we've built the foundation on news. We probably do more local news in our markets than our competitors do.
What's a recent local news story that you're proud of?
The story that WAGA Atlanta's investigative group did, the Herman Cain/the other woman story. Because of WAGA's reputation in Atlanta, and the news department's reputation for quality investigative work, [Cain's alleged mistress] sought us out and we broke that story. In the end it had a tremendous impact on the Republican presidential campaign.
When it comes to election coverage, has the role of a TV station changed in a world of Twitter and Facebook?
The advent of social media just exploded the past 3-4 years. It absolutely has an impact, but it's a great opportunity and challenge to take advantage of it. People try figure out how to make [election coverage] interactive, and I think social media gives you the opportunity to do that.
Will the Fox stations offer some new wrinkles to political coverage this year?
We were aggressive with our political coverage in 2008 and it turned out to be a historic campaign. Now 2012 is unfolding. Presidential election years are always exciting and I don't think this will be different. Our coverage will be as aggressive and detailed and interesting as we can make it. Hopefully we'll play some role in informing our public.
Will there be more input from Fox News Channel on the owned stations this time around?
They've got their job to do and we have our job to do. They're in the 24/7 business and we have our local newscasts. They're going to be more national in their approach and we're going to be more local in ours.
Speaking of Fox affiliates, the retrans noise seems to have quieted down. Is that what you're seeing?
That would probably be a better question for the West Coast, for [Fox executive vice president, network distribution] Jon Hookstratten and [News Corp COO] Chase Carey and the people who make those decisions. We're owned stations, and that carries a tremendous responsibility. We have to set a positive example for our network and our affiliate body. That's what our focus is.
The Fox owned stations are adding Bounce TV and in some cases, KIN TV. What about a groupwide network of homegrown content for the multicast channels?
We wanted to get in that business. We obviously held back thinking we would use our spectrum in regards to mobile television, which we still see as a tremendous possibility. But then Kin and Bounce came along, and we thought there were positive reasons to create those relationships. We have the ability to do that because we weren't doing some other things. So it's a good start for us, but it's a start, and we'll look at other opportunities as they present themselves.
Is this the year for widespread mobile DTV?
I think there will be announcements about mobile DTV that will be very positive.
How are Fox's MyNetworkTV stations doing?
I think we've got to do some things with the MyNet stations. MyNet prime, with established programs there, we do OK, that's not our biggest problem. The Big Bang Theory does really well for us in access at stations where we run that. The biggest issue with MyNet stations is daytime. We only have one standalone [WUTB Baltimore], the rest are duopolies. In those markets, it's 44 hours a day. We're sort of like Little Shop of Horrors-we have to keep putting stuff in the plant. We could help ourselves with some creativity in daytime, some different kinds of programming there to boost our situation. And we're having discussions about that. Obviously the economy in our business is difficult right now-whatever you do, you have to do in a cost-effective manner.
What are some options for daytime?
I don't feel comfortable discussing that publicly. We want to put on programs that would attract an audience. We don't want to reinvent the wheel, but some things I think we can do and we'll take a look it.
Do you foresee any changes to the Local News Service arrangement for 2012?
I don't think so. I would hope that people understand there has been pooling in television as long as I've been in the business. Networks pooled in Washington forever-all you have to do is go back to the Watergate hearings. Pooling has been a way of life for network television. We saw that as an opportunity not to take us out of exclusive or individual news coverage, but having a half-dozen stations show up at some ribbon cutting is a waste of resources. One of the reasons we're able to do some of the investigative pieces we do is that there's LNS for run of the mill, everyday stuff, and we can put our resources to better use elsewhere.
What are you watching on TV?
I watch Fox. I watch local news programs, not just in New York, but all over the country. I get paid to watch our television stations and I watch them as carefully as I can. I try to watch some of the programs I know will be in syndication. My television viewing habits are governed by my job. When I was president of sports, I watched sports. When I was president of daytime, I watched soap operas. Now, it's lots of local news.
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