Local TV

CBS' New Science of Local Media

CEO Leslie Moonves and his team share a rare look at their local plans 3/14/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Try This At Home

Five things that are working for CBS Local Media:

• Developing mechanisms to share best practices across markets

• Emphasizing promoting on-air talent from within the company

• Getting TV and radio stations to work together driving content, promotions and revenue

• Folding CBS–owned Websites in a single market together into single sites like CBSNewYork.com

• Licensing out initiatives such as CBS Local Media’s Groupon–like service to other station groups

CBS’ owned-and-operated television stations have had
their ups and downs in recent years—not unlike the
entire station business—and much like the local business
in general, there are plenty of signs of an upswing. An eye-opening February sweeps performance
saw several CBS O&Os upend longtime
market leaders, prompting multiple
high-level CBS executives to call it the best
sweeps performance in memory.

But ratings
are just part of the story, as CBS is bullish
on initiatives like an exhaustive rollout of 24
joint TV-radio Websites in markets where
CBS owns stations in both broadcast media.
But instead of kicking back and admiring its
handiwork now that the station business has
solidified, those plotting the future for the CBS
Television Stations, led by President Peter Dunn,
are focused on what’s next, including plans for a
multicast channel.

“We have such a huge amount of [local]
content —it’s never been approached in quite
the way Peter is doing right now, utilizing all our assets,” Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. president/
CEO, told B&C. “But before you can
start inventing subchannels or even a digital
philosophy, you have to get your main house
in order. Our stations are humming now, and
it’s time to expand the portfolio.”

In a series of interviews, Moonves and his
top executives on the station front opened
their local playbook, revealing a combination
of best practices, new gambles and some oldfashioned
luck.

While some deride the station business
as mature, or downright wheezing, the high
growth in local TV has made CBS’ 28 stations, including 16 that are affiliated with the CBS
network, an essential part of what Moonves
refers to as the company’s “content chain.”

Network TV may be CBS’ bread and butter,
and new revenue streams such as retrans are
considerably sexy, but Moonves and his deputies
nonetheless see big things ahead for local media.
In February, CBS reported that its combined TV
and radio station revenue for the fourth quarter
of 2010 increased 21% to $821.5 million over
the previous year, with the television stations
showing a 28% boost in revenue.

“In the last year, continuing into this year,
the turnaround of our stations has been
the biggest improvement in the company,”
Moonves says.

First Step:
A Ratings Rebound

And the turnaround of which Moonves
speaks came from a rough patch in many
places. The CBS-owned station group, which
includes WCBS New York, KCBS Los Angeles
and WBBM Chicago, was known as a batch
of underperforming also-rans in recent years.

A number of factors have driven the rebound,
but clearly the network’s continued
momentum hasn’t hurt. CBS stays hot in
primetime thanks to ratings-hogging franchises
such as NCIS, CSI and Chuck Lorre
comedies (no matter what certain actors think
of him), and mixing in new players such as
The Good Wife and Hawaii Five-0. That, along
with a strong sports stable, has entrenched
CBS affiliates as primetime leaders in the vast
majority of TV markets nationwide, and that’s
with little help from the troubled national
news division, outside of stalwart
60 Minutes.

But the locals are keeping viewers
around more than ever when primetime
ends. The stations enjoyed a February
2011 sweeps that saw,
among other surprises,
WCBS New York grab
the 11 p.m. ratings title
from longtime leader
WABC in households
and total viewers for
the first time in almost
two decades, along
with power moves up
the pecking order in
Dallas, Chicago and
Los Angeles.

“It’s the first time
all our news stations
are No. 1 or No. 2 in
households across the
board,” says Dunn,
who was elevated
to group president
in November 2009.
“One thing we’ve been working on is holding
on to our [primetime] retention, and more
than half our stations held on to 100% of
viewers coming out of prime. We’ve never
seen that kind of retention in the past.”

The retention Dunn speaks of has been the
responsibility of David Friend, WCBS news
director, since his promotion to a group-wide
news role last August.

What’s Working

Moonves and company cite several factors
that have helped shore up the local business
that some of CBS’ competitors had all but dismissed
in recent times.

For instance, having a mechanism in place
to share best practices—as well as hot topics
and stories—throughout the group has
helped the CBS stations thrive in the vital
late-news battles.

The CBS group has also emphasized promoting
talent from within, as opposed to luring
away a star anchor from the competition,
both to foster continuity and to keep salaries
out of the stratosphere. When WCBS New
York lead anchor Chris Wragge was tapped
in the network’s latest attempt to clean up the
Early Show mess in late November, morning
anchor Maurice Dubois was promoted to
evenings and late news on WCBS and helped
the station to its landmark February performance.
“We’ve focused on building the brand
over the past four or five years,” says Friend.
“When changes occur in the anchor realm,
the brand continues.”

Moonves also credits Dunn for making key
changes in general managers, including shifting
Steve Mauldin from Dallas to Los Angeles.

But as essential to the stations’ success as
anything has been an overhauled local strategy
that kicked off 16 months ago with the
birth of CBS Local Media, which Moonves at
the time called “a strategic restructuring of
[CBS’] local broadcasting operations.”

After years of working separately—and often
competing against one another for scoops
and sales—a market’s CBS owned TV station
and radio station(s) were instructed to work
side-by-side on content, promotions and
revenue. “We were in silos,” says Anton Guitano,
CBS Local Media COO, of life before the overhaul. “TV worried about TV and radio
worried about radio. The Web was in a totally
different area.”

Digging for
Digital Dollars

Joe Ianniello, CBS executive VP/CFO, recently
said the $15 billion local online marketplace
represented a $500 million-plus opportunity for
CBS. In January 2010, CBS tapped Ezra Kucharz
to go after this digital cash, and the new Local
Digital Media president—a veteran of employers
as varied as iVillage and NASA—set about
folding the various CBS local Websites in a
market, including TV stations and properties
like sports radio franchise WFAN and news
radio outlets CBS 880 and 1010 WINS, into
joint sites with the template of CBSNewYork.com and CBSLosAngeles.com. (CBS-owned
music stations have retained their own sites.)

The sites compete not so much with other
station sites in the market, but with daily newspapers
and consumer-focused sites like City-
Search. “One content [team], one sales team,
one unified strategic vision,” was how Kucharz
described it in a recent presentation to investors.

Kucharz says page views for the joint sites
have surpassed the aggregate totals from back
in the multiple-site days, while the average
time users spent on the
CBS sites has grown from
3½ minutes to well over
11. “We’re typically in
the top 2-3 sites in our
markets, usually behind
the newspaper,” Kucharz
says. “In terms of electronic
media, there is nobody
bigger than we are
in most markets.”

Under the new philosophy,
for example, WCBS sports anchor Sam
Ryan appears on sports radio WFAN, while
longtime 1010 WINS street reporter John
Montone does segments on WCBS. CBS Radio
President/CEO Dan Mason says the strategy is
a throwback to the old days of broadcasting,
where reporters popped up frequently on the
parent company’s TV and radio properties.
“We’re bringing back a concept that’s worked
so well in the past,” Mason says. “But we’re
bringing it back bigger and better.”

What’s Old Is New Again

Indeed, it’s not a new concept that’s driving
the CBS stations’ rebirth. And based on its success,
one has to wonder why the all-for-one local
strategy wasn’t pushed a decade ago. Some
of it was born out of cost-cutting necessity as
much as innovation. Certainly the heavy downsizing
stations underwent in the recent recession
helped prompt the move, as TV and radio
now share back-office functions in a common
market. “We’ve steadily whittled away costs
and capitalized on synergies…in a way we never
had before,” Moonves told investors Feb. 24.

CBS’ local brain trust says the past 16
months is the opening chapter of a multi-faceted
local strategy. Kucharz is in talks about
licensing CBS Local Media’s digital couponing
platform, offering deals of the day à la Groupon
with other station groups.

Friend is bullish on a mobile news-gathering
technology in place in half of the group’s
stations that allows reporters equipped with
gear that fits in a backpack to transmit hi-def
signals on the go. The “Mobile 2” truck has
contributed at least two signature reports this
winter: one viral video that showed former
New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine offering
an impromptu tour of snowy Stamford,
Conn., from the back seat of the Mobile 2
vehicle, and another showing New York’s substandard
snow removal effort in the outer boroughs
days after a blizzard.

“It brings the viewer closer to the story,”
says Friend. “It adds another dimension to
the depth of our news coverage.”

The stations’ ratings success stories may only
last until the next sweeps. But for now, CBS’
local execs think they’re on to something big.

“It’s the first time we are all working together—
it’s showing up in the ratings, it’s
showing up in revenue, it’s showing up in
content,” says Dunn. “We have so many assets
in our markets and a bigger voice. People tell
me, ‘Wow—you woke up a sleeping giant.’”

E-mail comments to
mmalone@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz

Try This At Home

Five things that are working for CBS Local Media:

• Developing mechanisms to share best practices across markets

• Emphasizing promoting on-air talent from within the company

• Getting TV and radio stations to work together driving content, promotions and revenue

• Folding CBS–owned Websites in a single market together into single sites like CBSNewYork.com

• Licensing out initiatives such as CBS Local Media’s Groupon–like service to other station groups

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