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Growing independents

Station groups aren't getting too large, says Tribune president 1/21/2001 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Michael Eigner tried an early entry into reality TV back in the early 1990s. He wanted to broadcast longtime New York City shock jock Don Imus' morning radio show on WPIX-TV , the station he was running.

Imus said no. But it couldn't have been too bad an idea, considering that Imus, now syndicated nationally on radio, is also a morning television host, over cable net MSNBC. And Howard Stern does his radio show over both cable and broadcast.

But maybe it wasn't the right time, says the executive who moved from WPIX-TV to lead the Tribune Television group of 23 independent TV stations. "We go through a cyclical process in programming," Eigner says. "Now we're in the adult-oriented-sitcom and hour-long-drama mode. We don't have a lot of all-family-type sitcoms. And, of course, the reality genre is hot. That influences the decisions we make. There are people who take risks on certain genres of programming, and many of us benefit from their successes. If you react quickly, you can share in that success. But you can also risk overkill. That's one of the interesting things about our business."

Interesting things abound in the television business these days, and Tribune is in the middle of much of it. "New York is about to go digital; we're up in seven of our markets with digital channels-Chicago; Seattle; Sacramento, Calif.; Indianapolis; Dallas; and San Diego. We broadcast the Rose Parade in high-definition. It's early in the process, but we see a definite benefit in terms of the pictures. But the lack of digital television sales has been frustrating.

"Our company bought Times Mirror in March," he says, "and we've been working on the integration of Times Mirror into Tribune. We have been working on a multimedia strategy in Chicago for quite a while, where we have quite a presence with a newspaper, radio, TV and the Chicago Cubs. Now we have tremendous cross-media opportunities in the top three markets. That affords an advertiser the opportunity to get national coverage and target locally at the same time. With consolidation, Viacom, ABC, Fox and now Tribune is taking advantage of our assets, our greater reach, the one-stop buying atmosphere."

Eigner has come at shopping television from both sides, having worked the ad and rep side before crossing over to television. For him, it started with a fondness for TV. "I grew up in front of the television set," he says. "When I had an opportunity to work at Ted Bates, I really loved it. I got to marry my feelings as a viewer to the business. Eventually, I would get to buy commercial time and then to run a television station. I felt a close identity with television."

He thinks a seller needs to have been a buyer. "I think that a prerequisite to selling television is buying it. It would be really hard to sell an item you can't relate to. Being on the buying side, you know the difference between good buying and bad buying. We certainly try to look for that when we hire. The business has changed. There are fewer agencies, fewer buyers. There are fewer owners, and the groups are larger. Consolidation has changed the business. But good sales people can sell anything."

Are groups getting too large? As head of a broadcasting group that hopes to grow some more, Eigner doesn't think so. "I don't go along with the criticism that there is less localism in television at the station level. Stations do an awful lot at the local level. With our company, it's still the show and the demographic. Stations still buy what they want to. It's unusual for stations in our group to take shows they don't want. But there's more group buying. Stations that couldn't afford to buy product can afford to get it."

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