WXYZ Boss Bob Sliva: Keeping the Lights on in Detroit
WHO: Bob Sliva, VP/General Manager, WXYZ-TV Detroit
WHERE: WXYZ, Southfield, MI
WHEN: Monday, Dec. 29, 2008
THE DISH: By the time I meet Bob Sliva, VP and general manager of WXYZ-TV Detroit, I am entirely convinced that my hometown Motown has become Armaggedon.
The Associated Press just published a story proclaiming that the Motor City—with its killer combo of the nation’s worst unemployment rate (9.6%), dependence on the teetering auto industry and the recent conviction of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for attempts to cover up an affair—has replaced New Orleans as America’s most beleaguered city. Even without a natural disaster to blame.
Then the lights actually go out. Literally. Following a windy night during the last weekend of the year, some 180,000 homes in the Detroit area lose power. As I drive along Connor Avenue the night before I meet Sliva, past the shuttered Budd automotive stamping plant, the only things lighting the street are emergency vehicles tending to car accidents.
However, the next morning, Dec. 29, as I approach the Scripps-owned ABC affiliate in suburban Southfield (pictured, right) I dare say I am greeted by flickers of hope. It’s a well-kept set of buildings, including a farmhouse that was the original residence on the land that now makes up the Scripps complex. Everyone from the gate attendant to the station staffers projects good cheer at the beginning of a frigid, overcast holiday week.
“It is a tough time in Detroit, but it’s never been that easy in Detroit,” Sliva tells me as we sit in his office. “The reality is we talk about the recession that is now gripping the rest of the country. You’ve heard people say we’ve already been in it [in Detroit] for four or five years, and it’s true.”
Sliva (pronounced Sleeve-ah) has worked at WXYZ—the top revenue producer in the No. 11 DMA—for nearly 22 years, rising through the ranks. When he took a corporate job with Scripps overseeing sales for all of the company’s stations, he worked from here. He took the reigns as GM of WXYZ in January 2008, right before the scandal in the mayor’s office blew up, and began a whopper of a year.
“The reality of it is, the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal, whether anybody wanted to admit it or not, really moved the lever to ‘stop,’” Sliva says. “Some conventions canceled, investment in the city [stopped]. People wondered, ‘Who is going to be the new mayor?’ ‘Is he going to be able to survive?’”
Then there are, of course, the “extremely challenging times for the auto industry,” he says. Motown’s problems are only compounded by the national recession. “The realities are if a consumer can’t get credit, you can’t buy a car,” he says. He knows dealers in Detroit where customers with credit scores of 700 or more (considered good by credit agencies) are walking off car lots because they can’t get financing.
Sliva is on the board of the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB), and when he surveys the landscape today—from WXYZ’s point of view, Detroit’s, or other stations nationwide—what he sees isn’t pretty. The auto industry bailout approved in December won’t fix what is broken, he says: “Regardless of what President Bush did, that’s not going to save the car companies.”
But there is upside to the car company leaders going before Congress, he says. It raises awareness of certain conditions and practices that he believes should be reconsidered for the health of these companies and the economy. He says he’s “not against free trade or anything” but some international conditions are frustrating. Among them: Korean manufacturers can import up to 700,000 cars here, but the U.S. can export up to only 5,000 cars to Korea.
The first quarter of 2009 looks bleak, especially considering the inevitable snowball effects. “One decision impacts another,” Sliva says.
He cites feedback he’s heard that domestic and foreign auto manufacturers will cut production some 39% in the first quarter. That means dealers buying fewer vehicles, fewer dollars going to advertising, and on down the line. “To expect dealers to fund their own advertising or the manufacturers to spend significant sums on advertising in this environment would be a stretch,” he says.
As any exec would, Sliva holds his most successful survival strategies close.
WXYZ has avoided cutbacks to this point, he says. “We would never do anything to jeopardize the station, but beyond that, people are the most important thing,” Sliva says. “If I have to do without a software upgrade – as long as it doesn’t compromise the station – I will do that instead of losing somebody.”
He says he’s seen some wins with new business development, by creating “atypical” environments in which to sell. That may mean unusual program lengths, particularly with sponsorable elements on longer-form programming that the station can produce.
“It’s not running down the street, banging on a door and getting a 30-second spot sold,” he says. “A lot of it is that stations are being asked to be more like agencies than ever before, to be part of that marketing mix from the beginning.”
Television stations in general are doing a lot more production, he says, and if Oprah Winfrey does not renew her syndication deal when it’s up in 2010, Sliva says his first thought for replacing the show, which airs at 4 on his station, is “let’s produce something.”
He’s already looking at ramping up local programming on weekend mornings in the first quarter. The channel has morning and noon newscasts on Sundays but not Saturdays, which is filled with syndicated programming. He says he was planning on news on Saturdays before the Detroit newspapers announced that in March they would cease home delivery on Saturdays (see related story, Detroit Stations Eye Opportunity As Papers Pull Back); he acknowledges it’s great timing.
Still, he says a lot can happen in 90 days, and he expects it to. An opportunist, for example, could pursue a cottage industry in delivering those papers between now and then.
Meantime, Sliva hopes for quicker progress among new industries in the region. “It’s probably going slower than most people would hope,” he says, indicating that the change in the White House and the mayor’s office in 2009 will be steps in the right direction. There’s a special mayoral election next month.
Also scheduled for next month – for now at least — is the DTV switch. The Detroit market has come together for a coordinated readiness effort and Sliva says they are on target. WXYZ has their digital channel up and running as an affiliate of RTN, running classic TV.
Regional industries showing promise include alternative energy and health-care projects, opportunities in the university system and the potential for Michigan to become a transportation/logistics hub. That all requires “thinking larger in scope,” Sliva says.
Among the bigger-scope initiatives is the $550 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams that Michigan State University recently won.
“There are a lot of people willing to work tirelessly to help the city and I think that will be the case going forward,” Sliva says.
For these times, he cites a go-to principle that sticks with him from Scripps corporate culture: “Control the controllables.”
“If you can’t impact the outcome of something, don’t spend time on it,” he says. “I can’t control General Motors’ spending; I can’t spend my time waiting and worrying about it. Control the things we can control, and generally good things happen when you do that.”
Then, we head outside to the old farmhouse next door that’s been converted to a cafeteria (pictured, above), and I swear, the sun has come out.
DINED ON: This is one Mel’s Diner that does not involve a meal. No, it’s not that things are so bad in Detroit that execs are skipping meals, or that I am too stuffed from Mom’s holiday home cooking (there’s always room for ravioli). Because I visited on a holiday week, Sliva’s usual breakfast joint—WXYZ’s farmhouse-turned-staff cafeteria—is closed.
Bob grabs a key and gives me a tour. It’s set up like a restaurant with a couple of dining rooms on the first floor. The bedrooms on the second floor have become private lunch rooms, and a staff of three cooks breakfast, lunch and food for the vending machines. The setting plays to the family vibe at the station, which turned 60 in October.
VIDEO Tour the farmhouse cafeteria
We agree next time I’m in town to try out one of Sliva’s nearby off-campus favorites, which include Italian cuisine at Bacco Ristorante in Southfield and The Capital Grille at the tony Somerset Collection mall.