Fox Embraces Underdog Status

Innovation, determination and lots of local news define O&Os

Why This Matters

At a Glance: Fox Television Stations (FTS)

Top Execs:Rupert Murdoch, News Corp. chairman; Roger Ailes, FTS chair; Jack Abernethy, FTS CEO; Dennis Swanson, FTS operations president

Public or Private:Public

U.S. coverage:37.2%

Number of stations:27

Locations:Fox and MyNetworkTV outlets in markets such as WNYW-WWOR New York, KTTV-KCOP Los Angeles, WFLD-WPWR Chicago

With just a fraction of the
network programming aired
by rival stations, a Fox-owned
outlet offers lots and lots of local news. Two
years ago, Fox Television Stations and NBC
Local Media announced a Local News Service
partnership, which kicked off similar
content shares around the country. Fox stations
CEO Jack Abernethy says the group
retains its scrappy ethic even as the stations
continue to grow share in their markets.
Abernethy spoke with B&C Deputy Editor
Michael Malone about what makes the Fox
O&Os unique. An edited transcript follows.

Local News Service’s two-year anniversary
is coming up. Will that model
evolve, or is it perfect as is?

I don’t think it’s perfect. It’s different in every market, but
the basic concept is the same everywhere and is very successful.
We have three or four partners in the top six markets,
with one exception, and a fairly large group of camera
people and editors that are covering an awful lot of stories
daily, and have been for the better part of two years. So
we’re very happy with it, and so are our partners.

Might the Comcast-NBC merger affect LNS?

I think not. We’ve been good partners with NBC. They see
things the way we do. And I fully believe that Comcast has
good broadcasting DNA and they’ll want to continue it for
the same reasons that we started it.

Do you think 2011 will be an
off year, or are you optimistic?

I’m fairly optimistic. We had a tremendous
amount of political advertising,
which in many ways crowded
out [core] advertising. We’ve seen virtually
all categories show real strength
year to year, especially those that had
had a couple rough years, like the
autos and financial. We’re optimistic
for continued growth—albeit not as
great as it’s been in the last quarter.

Is what’s going on in terms of broadcasters’
spectrum a concern for you?

It’s a concern. It’s one of the reasons why we
joined the NAB—we’re firmly behind Gordon
Smith and our fellow broadcasters. While we
support the goals of the broadband effort, we
also think it’s important to maintain over-theair
broadcasting. We think we make good use
of the spectrum. We think we will continue to
make good use of it, with things like mobile.

How big a business can mobile be?

It’s hard to predict, [but] the success of the
tablet has been incredible, and I think you
can assume a younger generation that’s going
to expect to see television on portable
devices soon. If it can be scaled properly, it
could be very, very big business.

What does a Fox station represent in its market?

A Fox station generally leads its market in some ways, but at
the same time still feels like an underdog. A Fox station is much
harder to manage. You have two hours of network programming,
while the other networks have at least 11. You have as
much as twice the local news as the other network affiliates. I
think a Fox station is the most demanding to manage, but also
the most rewarding—and usually the most profitable.

Do you figure to add more partners to the LNS concept?

Over the last six months, we've added a station here and
there, so it has grown a little bit. But I think the basic concept is sound,
and we can cover all the generic things that everybody else would've done anyway,
which is what we said we were going to do. It really frees up staff and news
departments to be more creative and be distinctive.

LNS has been a tremendous success for us. In some cases it's
a scrappy little independent news service like AP-they run around, getting
everything they can and feed it into bloodstream. I'm just amazed at people who
say negative things about it; they obviously have no idea how it works.

I hear the term "Foxified" a lot-a Foxified newscast is high energy,
has a lot of stories, maybe a little bit of attitude. Are reporters at Fox
stations encouraged to have a little point of view in their reporting?

I don't know if we've ever used the word "Foxified." What we
do try do most importantly is make things compelling. In this environment there
are a lot of choices, choices for time-shifted viewing. You really have to be
compelling and interesting. People are very quick on their remotes-you can't
have any downtime. We certainly encourage people to be aggressive and become
interesting in a way that holds the viewers.

Will there be more point of view at the stations in the coming year at
the local level?

We do a very limited amount of that. We do editorials in a
couple of markets, but for the most part, we're doing news shows, we're not really
doing point of view. Occasionally we'll have a point of view but it will be
framed like an editorial.

There's a lot of talk of groups shaking up the local news model, such
as Tribune trying the no-anchors formula. Will the Fox group think about
shaking up the model?

As I mentioned, we're trying to come up with more compelling
newscasts. Television news hasn't changed much in the last 30 years, and a lot
of that is because it's been successful. But we think it's a time to really
evolve and become more current. I don't know if a total shakeup is quite
necessary, but you look at a TMZ,
which runs on our stations. It's not quite news, but there's an interesting
model, with no anchors, no reporters and no studio crew. Yet it's a pretty
interesting and compelling format and people seem to want to watch. We're not
going to turn our news into a TMZ
set, but we're looking for ways to become more current, and some of our
stations are further along in this than others.

The Raycom stations have banded together to create the group-wide show America
Now. With so many local news outlets, is
the Fox group considering creating a similar type of show?

I applaud Raycom for that idea. That notion's been kicking
around ever since I've been in this business. I think that we found success by
being local; Philadelphia wants news about Philadelphia. If there's a way to
make it interesting, we would do it. But you're competing with every other
national show--you've got a lot of competitors when you do that.

I haven't seen anybody really come up with a formula that
works to do that. Any program that's based on resource-saving is challenging.

There's a little bit of M&A action in the station world. Do you
figure the Fox group will acquire or sell stations in 2011?

We don't have any plans to do either, but we're always
opportunistic about what's best for the business. A few years ago we sold some.
Who knows?

If the group were to do a deal, do you think it would be a buyer or

It depends on the situation. Could be either, or neither.

ABC, CBS and NBC did inventory exchanges with their partner stations
around Election Day [see cover story]. I didn't hear about Fox doing that-did I
miss something?

We do things like that, in a smaller, controlled fashion
when it makes sense. But we didn't have anything as formal as what they talked

With the Wall Street Journal
part of the parent company, is there any talk of getting more
WSJ content and talent on at the station level
when appropriate?

We've certainly had that here in New York--Good Day has had several Wall Street Journal
writers on. I believe we're somewhat limited by the deal [the Wall Street Journal has] with CNBC. It's
terrific to have them as part of the company; their expansion of the paper, in
terms of the Greater New York effort, just means more talented people on
various beats. It makes it easier for us when we need guests.

Fox News Channel talent sometimes appears on the stations. Any plans to
expand their presence on the stations in the new year?

Not formally, no. Neil Cavuto is on every day on the 10 p.m.
news around the country. We're able to very quickly integrate their people
during elections and programs where you want perspective on a local basis. But there
are no formal plans for expansion beyond what we've done. We had a very
successful election night, where they did a program for us on the stations.
They have a great bench and we're really happy to be working with them.

Are you happy with how your MyNetworkTV stations are doing? Any plans
for those?

We made some syndication purchases over the last year. We
bought Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. We have 30 Rock coming on next year. Whereas the
Fox stations are news and information-based, those [MyNetworkTV] stations will
continue to be based on top sitcoms, the MyNetwork network, which has done
well, and regional sports, which continue to be successful for us.

Which new fall shows do you like?

I like Glee--I think
Glee came back stronger than it was
last year. And it's not on our network, but we produce it-I like Modern Family. That's a very funny show
that's going to last and have legs. The way they weave the three stories
together is very well done.