Ion Eyes Growth After RestructuringWants to turn big local real estate into bigger presence 7/19/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern
With 59 stations covering 64% of the U.S., Ion Television has the largest
station-group footprint in America. Yet, it's something of a sleeping giant,
with lots of off-network product and no local programming. Ion emerged from
bankruptcy in late 2009 and is now privately owned; President/CEO Brandon Burgess says the
company is poised to grow. Burgess speaks with B&C's Michael Malone about his growth roadmap.
With such a giant footprint, will Ion get into local programming or
The answer to the first question is, I hope so. The answer to the
second is, I don't know. The question is, is the best use of our airtime doing
another repurposed local news, or doing something different? I don't know that
yet. We're just 180 days into our next phase, and that's something we need to
think through. I certainly hope that we're going to do more locally over the
next couple of years. Whether it's news or not, we have to figure that out.
Who's your typical viewer?
Our typical viewer is adults 25-54, 55% women, 45% men.
Middle-of-the-road demographic, mainstream America-type viewer. It's quite an
improvement over where we were as little as three years ago, when our average
age was north of 60.
When you see TV Land with Hot in Cleveland and AMC with Mad Men, is
there a model there where you say, boy, we'd like to brand Ion with a signature
The PR value and consumer awareness value of successes like that is
inescapable. But you have to be really careful that it computes when all is
said and done. These projects are very, very expensive and for every one that
succeeds, there's probably five, six, seven others that haven't that you still
have to fund. So, when you look at original production, you really have to look
at signing up for a slate, not signing up for an individual show. There are
hits and misses out there. Certainly, the ones you mention are best in class
when it comes to breakout successes. Would I like us to have one or two of
those to look back on three or four years from now? Yes, absolutely. I hope we
can find our version of getting into that thought process.
How is your day-to-day different now that Ion is out of bankruptcy?
What does it mean for the company?
It's been liberating. It's been, quite frankly, really enjoyable to
finally be able to focus on the business, and not deal with balance
sheet-related questions that have really little to do with the business and
have everything to do with the past. Our new ownership structure is terrific.
It's hugely beneficial that we're privately held now so we don't have to go
through quarterly short-term thought processes and can really be strategic
about what we want to do. The ownership group [Black Diamond, Avenue
Capital, Trilogy Capital] has been extremely supportive. I come to work every
day with a whole new bounce-I'm really enjoying it.
is good, business is better. For us, business being better is a function of two
things. We had to get our house in order the last couple of years related to
our legacy balance sheet. That's all behind us now and we're 180 days into our
new life, so to speak. In [that time], revenue has turned up noticeably. Both
national and local spots and direct response are pretty healthy at this point.
Will Ion's local outlets have
more of a local feel anytime soon?
no question that one of the best opportunities for us is localism. At the same
time, the local marketplace is a tough one to break into. We would have to
compete with very, very well-established and competent news organizations.
Whether that is our best contribution, I don't know, but maybe there is a
different form of news that could evolve in the digital age. I've always been a
big fan, at least intuitively, in citizen journalism; whether that is something
that allows us to do some version of News 2.0, I'm certainly supportive of
There's record political spending
around the corner. Is that something that Ion gets a taste of?
historically, but I hope it will going forward. We've been discussing trying to
get ourselves a little more on the radar screen as an outlet for that. We are
actually a relatively attractive reach vehicle to over-the-air homes, which as
we know influence votes. So, we'd like to position ourselves a little more
along those lines.
How do you do that?
toyed with the idea of providing an overview of our company and network to key
constituents in political races, maybe even host them on a local basis to
introduce themselves using our air in some way, shape or form and hopefully get
on the radar screen. Maybe over time we are able to monetize some of that. It
might not lead to monetary results day one, but over time, as political becomes
more competitive, over-the-air hopefully will be attractive to that
Ion introduced some original
movies in 2008. What are you doing now in terms of original programming?
have had a lot of success laying in foundation which, largely speaking, has
been an off-network syndicated model. [But] I do hope and think we have to
revive our original aspirations. And we need to figure out whether movies or
reality or series are the right way to go. At the time, movies were the thought
because they were a relatively bite-sized way, particularly when you're
resource-constrained, to put some accents on top of an off-network, syndicated
foundation. I think we'll continue to do some of that.
next frontier for us has to be examining whether reality or a miniseries or
scripted [series] makes sense for us in terms of the 2.0 version of what we're
Ion has added more high-profile
off-network shows, such as Ghost
Whisperer and Criminal Minds, in
the last few years. Have you gotten a commensurate boost in viewership from
think so. Not to overstate things, but we know we have a long way to go. But at
this point, if you look at our trajectory, I think we're on our way to meeting
our goals and establishing ourselves as one of the nation's top 15 television
brands that people turn to as part of their general entertainment roster. We've
only been at this for really two seasons in earnest because it took us a couple
of years to deal with restructuring and assembling content. Today, we're
ranging in the top 20 among all cable-equivalent networks. We measure ourselves
more against the cable universe than we do against [broadcast]; we don't really
compete at that level.
average viewer watches 10 to 15 networks, so if you can establish yourself in
the top 15, you're definitely going to be relevant. Year-to-date, we're around
No. 20 of all networks, if you strip out special-interest ones. That's a good
first milestone. Now the question is, how to you build from there and sustain
You're a leader in terms of
mobile DTV. Since Ion doesn't have local news content, why is mobile so
important to the company?
would be a carrier. When we started this journey, which was a time long before
I could see the end of the light at the tunnel, we were spectrum-rich and
content-poor, and we're trying to reverse that.
time will tell whether the ecosystem will come together in a way where we can
plug into it and support the effort. But our philosophy was, in order to make
the ecosystem possible, we need to step up and be a leader and demonstrate
technical capability and bring the industry together on consensus. Hopefully,
we've made a small contribution to doing that, and now it's over to some of the
content-rich companies to determine whether it makes business sense to go to
the next level.
Are you concerned about what
you're hearing from the FCC about spectrum, or are you hearing the right
hearing the right things. As Spider-Man would say, with great spectrum comes
great responsibility. I don't inherently disagree with what the FCC is trying
to accomplish. What they're really saying is, let's all make sure we're
bringing this to the highest and best use. It may be a little nerve-wracking
when you're not prepared for that question, but it's not an inappropriate
question. I think broadcasters have to be realistic about that.
think we always have to be alert that we have a responsibility to think through
the use cases. We have hopefully been a role model [in terms of] thinking more
about use scenarios than any other company in the space. I welcome the
discussion with the FCC. Ultimately, we have to be good custodians for both the
public airwaves and our investors, and I have every intention of participating
in that fully and rationally.
In terms of TV watching, what are
your can't-miss shows?
is best in class in my book in terms of scripted development: Criminal Minds, NCIS. Glee is my wife's favorite. I think it's
a great show, so my hat is off to Fox. USA Network is a leader in scripted with
Burn Notice and Royal Pains. I
think there's a lot of good television being produced equally on broadcast and
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