It’s a long way from New York to Dallas—and from NBC to Nexstar—but Tom O’Brien is home again in the heart of Texas. Six years after departing the top job at KXAS, O’Brien is back in Dallas-Fort Worth for an ambitious new role at one of the fastest-growing broadcast groups.
He’s experiencing a much different culture at Nexstar than during his days at NBC. “It’s a great environment because I can walk into the CEO’s office and talk to the guy who built the company,” O’Brien says of Nexstar founder Perry Sook. “It’s a more streamlined process than a typical corporate environment.”
But make no mistake—Nexstar is intent on being one of the largest station groups around, evident in the hundreds of millions it has spent on acquisitions over the past few years. O’Brien, the company’s new executive VP of digital media and chief revenue officer, will see his role grow. “He’s got tremendous intellect, a great work ethic and a real desire to succeed,” says Sook. “Tom is a great complement to our senior executive team.”
O’Brien had a good idea as a kid what he wanted to do for a living. Growing up in New Jersey and New York, he subsisted on Mets and Yankees broadcasts, Wide World of Sports, Monday Night Football—pretty much anything involving sports. “I learned that there was actually a business of television,” he says, “and I thought, it would be good to do something I really enjoy.”
He landed a high school internship at WTEN Albany (N.Y.), working alongside the production manager, and scored his first full-time job at WTNH New Haven (Conn.), producing and directing news and promos. He also freelanced for some big players in the sports world, working on highlights packages for CBS Sports and technical directing at ESPN.
While O’Brien loved the content world, the sales positions paid the bills. He shifted to account executive at WTNH, jumped to rival WVIT to be local sales manager and got his first GM job at WVIT in 1997.
Bigger posts followed, including running KXAS from 2001 to 2008. Former NBC colleagues describe O’Brien as well-versed in all aspects of the business, with an enormous capacity for details; a straight shooter, a guy who simply loves local broadcasting. “Tom had touched all the bases in broadcasting as he was coming up, so he really knew operations,” says Jay Ireland, former president of the NBC Universal Stations group and current CEO of GE’s Africa operations. “He’s got a real good sense of how to marry digital and broadcast.”
It was in Dallas-Fort Worth that O’Brien got friendly with another passionate local broadcaster in Sook, who is hailed as a pioneer for his efforts to get retransmission cash from distributors. “I really admired his vision for the business and what he was trying to build at Nexstar,” says O’Brien.
O’Brien departed Texas in 2008 for the GM job at flagship WNBC. It was a storied station on the nation’s biggest stage, but it was a tough time for the NBC group, which amid the recession got little love from GE. Adding to the challenges was the build-out of WNBC’s multiplatform “content center” operation, layoffs and at times gloomy morale. Former colleagues say O’Brien competed gamely and ably despite being dealt a tricky hand. “It was a tough job to do, and he got through it well,” says a former NBC colleague.
Revving Up Revenue
In 2010, O’Brien shifted to chief revenue officer at CNBC, a new post for the cable channel. He broke away from the Peacock in 2012 to found the consulting outfit Prescient Strategy Group, which paired private equity with digital startups.
He came on board at Nexstar Nov. 1; industry watchers say O’Brien was one of the best local TV free agents available, compelling Sook to create a position for him. The executive VP side of his job involves the dozens of station websites, along with local online business directories and content management systems. The chief revenue officer side involves maximizing revenue group-wide for on-air and online, and helping shape Nexstar into what Sook calls “an integrated local media company,” not just a station group with sites.
When he’s not stoking new revenue streams, the father of two might be golfing, boating or being soccer dad for his daughters, 16 and 19, who play for an elite travel squad and the University of Connecticut, respectively. “I spend a lot of time at soccer fields,” O’Brien says.
Sook says his new hire has a “hunting license” to grow the group’s digital business to $100 million yearly in five years; O’Brien knows he has his boss’ full support as he works toward the goal. “Nexstar is committed to being a great local broadcast company,” he says. “As the business evolves, there’s a great opportunity to serve the local markets with expanded digital offerings.”