Tribune's Next Chapter

It's business as usual, despite long stint in bankruptcy

Nils Larsen was named CEO of Tribune Broadcasting in late May. He took over a group with some major challenges  -- including being mired in Chapter 11 for nearly three years -- but one with considerable clout. There are 23 stations in the Tribune group, representing the nation's largest markets. With the vast majority of them Fox and CW affiliates, that means lots and lots of homegrown local programming, and strong voices in their communities.

Larsen spoke with Michael Malone, B&C deputy editor, about his plans for the group, both during and after bankruptcy.

Is there a time frame for emerging from bankruptcy?

I could certainly guess with you, but I don't have anything substantive to add other than what the judge stated at his last omnibus hearing in August. I think it's speculation past that. It's a complicated situation, and the judge is being thorough and respectful to the process. I'm not sure what that means for the time frame. [Note: On Oct. 31, a bankruptcy court judge rejected two Tribune reorganization plans, further delaying the company's exit from Chapter 11.]

What will emerging mean for the stations -- will it change the day-to-day?

I wouldn't anticipate that. We have a responsibility on behalf of the current board, the prospective owners and the prospective board to run this business to preserve and enhance the value any way we can. We've been doing that, and we will continue to do that. I think we have high-class individuals. I'll speak of the broadcast side because I work with them on a daily basis. It's a team that's committed to Tribune, to the present, to the future. What's going to happen once we emerge from bankruptcy -- my crystal ball says, if we do our jobs right, we will have the opportunity to continue doing our jobs right. I don't think it has affected morale, I don't think it has affected effort. I think people think we are going in the right direction, and I expect that's going to continue.

Tribune has made an effort to shake up local news. Is that still part of the game plan?

Absolutely. We launched our Eye Opener product in Houston in May. That station [KIAH] did not have much news identity, so we tried a couple of things. We did two hours in the morning with what we call Eye Opener, then an hour at 5 [p.m.] and an hour at 9 with NewsFix. It was a little different paradigm from two anchors behind the desk. The logic that went into that was, it's hard to replicate the success that someone else in the market has, so we do something a little different and pick up audience that's perhaps not being served by the conventional approach.

With regard to NewsFix, we've been quite pleased with how it's performing in Houston. The Eye Opener product we continue to tinker with, but it's something we're looking at for four of our other markets that don't have full news facilities for the morning news. I would suspect that will happen sometime in the fourth quarter, but I don't have a specific date for each market. They are places where we feel there's an opportunity to do something that has national content and also local news and information cut-ins -- something appealing not only to viewers, but to the advertising community that looks at early morning news as an attractive place to be.

What words would you use to describe a Tribune station?

It varies by market. Some, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, there's a tremendous investment in local news content. That means something to the community; [at] KTLA 5 [Los Angeles], news product means something there -- the call letters are something people rely on and look to. It's the same with WGN [Chicago] and WPIX [New York] -- they are brands people have grown up with and have interacted with for a long time.

In other markets where we don't have that type of commitment to news, it's more a focus on building the other content we have. We have a tremendous group of committed, dedicated, high-quality professionals. They have a blend of tremendous experience in markets they operate in. But also the new crop of people have stepped up -- whether it's the general manager in Washington, D.C., who was promoted a year ago [Ashley Messina], or the GM who went from Washington to New York [Eric Meyrowitz] and has taken the station to the next level. I know it's pithy, but I do think the identity of the station is reflective of the people who run it. I think people across the board here are high-class professional individuals who care about the product.

Tribune's Bill Cunningham Show debuted in September. Will your station group do more original programming?

It's certainly my intention. I believe Tribune needs to do more than periodically put a toe in the water with regard to original content. I wouldn't read that as we're gonna get into the primetime scripted comedy or drama business, but we are constantly looking around for things we can do. We launched the weekend show America's Best Bites. We are looking at developing a personality on WPIX [New York], Dr. Steve Salvatore, and doing a show around the health topic. We have a whole host of things we're thinking about and we'll see whether they make sense for us.

How's Bill Cunningham's show working out?

It launched on [Sept. 19] so we have two weeks. I'd say both weeks were consistent with expectations, maybe a little bit better. From a qualitative perspective, we've had a lot of nice feedback as to the quality of the production, Bill's work, how comfortable he appears, how efficient he is in terms of the general making of the product. Frankly it's not an easy thing--we obviously were taping those in advance of launch, and we continue to do that. People who've watched it throughout, I think have been quite pleased.

From a quantitative perspective, overall, the household numbers have been about where we hoped they would be. The conversion into the adult 25-54 demo is probably a little better than we would've thought. I don't want to extrapolate from two weeks, but it's a credit to [Tribune VP of operations] Steve Farber and [president of programming] Sean Compton and Bill and the production company and all the folks who've been shepherding this over the last 18 months. The general managers are providing a lot of valuable input. We've been listening to people in the industry and the collaboration has resulted in something we are pleased with.

Will Tribune do more original programming?

I'd say it's certainly my intention, whether Bill ultimately sticks or not. I believe Tribune needs to do more than periodically put a toe in the water with regard to original content. I wouldn't read that as we're gonna get into the primetime scripted comedy or drama business, but we are constantly looking around for things we can do. We launched the weekend show America's Best Bites [this past fall]. We are looking at developing one of personality on WPIX [New York], Dr. Steve Salvatore, and do a show around the health topic, probably another weekly, weekend type thing. We have a whole host of things we're thinking about and we'll see whether they make sense for us.

Has keeping morale up at the station level throughout the bankruptcy been a challenge?

I'm not going to sit here and tell you everybody's been whistling and skipping through the halls for the last three years. I think it's a real credit to the professionalism of our people that they've achieved what they have through a very difficult time period economically, as well as the restructuring.

I'd never say you become immune to the fact that you're operating in bankruptcy, but a lot of the uncertainty comes from the first 6-12 months. People have experienced that-it's been there, done that. I'm incredibly proud of the efforts put forth and in their ability to move this distraction to the back. I've made a real effort, Eddie [Tribune President/CEO Hartenstein] has made a real effort--management has made a real effort to be transparent with people, engage them, answer their questions, take the time, treat them with respect. I think that has, as much as anything, an impact on morale. You may not like what you're hearing, but if you believe what you're hearing is honest and forthright, it goes a long way.

The fact is, they're competing every day and winning. They're doing a good job. Couple an honest, open dialog with day to day operational success, and I think people feel good.  

Tribune's digital network Antenna TV has some good feedback thus far. Any big deals coming up for Antenna?

I'm very pleased with how that's proceeded so far. Obviously it's new, but we continue to focus on ways that we can expand its national footprint. I think we're in 55-60% of homes, and 14 of the Top 20 markets. Obviously we'd love for that momentum and that critical acclaim that Antenna has gotten to date to continue to expand. We work on that daily. We continue to look for ways to make sure the content that rotates through is fresh--you saw the recent announcement about [programming] additions coming up. We continue to look to expand its footprint.

You've got seven Fox affiliates. What do you think of the new shows on Fox?

It's not really what I think, it's what do other people think? Fox has been a tremendous content provider over the past 5-10 years. They continue to produce first rate, high quality primetime programming. New Girl obviously has been very well received. X Factor and Terra Nova have gotten a tremendous amount of buzz. I think they continue to look for ways to provide their affiliates with industry leading programming. It's no different with every other network, but Fox has certainly done a nice job there.

But I care a lot more about what Nielsen says people think than what I think.

Are the Tribune stations doing more investigative reporting?

We've definitely increased our investment in generating news content in our markets, and investigative is a piece of that. The short answer is, absolutely. Look no further than Los Angeles-KTLA is breaking news, getting stories--they're in front of established name brands. That brand means a lot out there. I single them out because it's a big market, not because the others have lesser passion or ability. Chicago, Indianapolis, New York--go down the list.

In some cases there are really strong benefits from the fact that we have a newspaper in the market. For instance, in Chicago, a lot of investigative stuff gets done in a collaborative effort between the Chicago Tribune and WGN TV. We get a lot bang for our buck out of it-it enables us to throw resources at investigative stories that other TV stations don't have.

How do you describe the arrangement between the Tribune stations and Local TV's?

It has a couple different components. The most standard is in Denver and St. Louis--they have a station and we have a station. We have a management services agreement and we're effectively coordinating the operation of the station to replicate the efficiencies of a duopoly. That's been very successful. I'll say it's beyond dispute, which means someone surely will dispute it, but there are permanent sustainable efficiencies when you put two television stations together in the same market. We've certainly seen it.

We do other things with them, from the perspective of leveraging each other's technologies, do some interactive things together. Many of their stations carry Antenna TV-we make that available to them as well. We give them the opportunity to get a sense of when we're developing new products that make sense to them.

They obviously have a separate management team and owners and pursue their own interests first and foremost. But we continue to have a very product and positive relationship with Local TV. And we hope and expect that to continue because we think it makes sense for both of us.

What about mobile DTV? Are there plans in the works to get that up and running and simulcast Tribune station signals to smartphones?

We're certainly paying attention very closely to what's going on in the mobile space. I don't think we disagree with the current wisdom that mobile is going to play a more expanded role in the future. Obviously people use the word "mobile" to mean a lot different things, and we're no different. We look at it from many different perspectives right now. Is commercial DTV at a consistency and quality reception that we think is ready for wide-scale commercialization? Probably not. But we certainly have done a lot of foundation work to be ready for when that comes

Smarter people than I can give you a better time estimate. But we have to be conversant in that space; I believe that we have to meet the consumer where and when the consumer wants to be met. Trying to change behaviors to facilitate my business model is going to be challenging. We have to make sure our business model adapts to where our consumers are so we can service them. It's beyond dispute that our products have tremendous utility. We just need to make certain that utility is accessible to people.

Are you concerned about what you're hearing from the FCC about broadcasters' spectrum?

We're certainly watching it very closely. I think we need an open and honest review of what we really provide folks. What happened on the East Coast the last couple months -- Hurricane Irene, the earthquake -- where do people turn? They turn to our industry. It's all well and good to say well, you don't do this, you don't do that. The fact of the matter is, broadcast television is incredibly valuable to our community. It is at all times, but especially in times of need. So we need to make certain we're not doing something in this conversation that is not very well thought out, something that undervalues what we provide in the community because it happens to be the rage to talk about the future. That's not to say that, if done well, we can't solve multiple constituents' concerns.

 [NAB President] Gordon Smith was quoted in a number of different places, quite articulately laying out the power of broadcast television. We're obviously very supportive of the NAB's efforts on this front, as well as being very attentive to it on our own.

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