Tribune's Next ChapterIt's business as usual, despite long stint in bankruptcy 11/14/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
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
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.
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
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.
network Antenna TV has some good feedback thus far. Any big deals coming up for
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
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
[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.