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In a year marked by broadcast networks and local television stations fighting over who deserves more retransmission cash, and in many cases blowing up long-term relationships, Brian Lawlor has been working double time to ensure that the network-affiliate connection remains a partnership and one that works in the best interests of both parties. Building on the successful efforts of his predecessors on the NBC affiliates board, Lawlor, the current board chairman, is working with NBC leadership on a model that would see the network represent affiliates on retrans negotiations. Those on both sides of the equation seem very enthusiastic about the concept.
Lawlor’s day job has him overseeing the Scripps TV group, a quality batch that includes market leaders WXYZ Detroit and WCPO Cincinnati. Lawlor has worked on recasting the stations as 24/7 media outlets, cranking out timely and critical content on all platforms; Scripps’ WMAR Baltimore, for one, was put to the test when the region was hit by an earthquake and a hurricane within days in late August.
Lawlor, 44, spoke with Michael Malone, B&C deputy editor, about building broadcast bridges in 2011.
What’s the role of a TV station during extreme events, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, in today’s packed media environment?
Giving out information that’s going to keep people safe during the event. Then it turns to several days of information about electricity, schools, shelter, food. It has a lot of different aspects, but at the root of it, it’s about keeping people safe and informed and helping them make decisions that will allow them to protect their property and families. I think it’s a really critical role for broadcasters.
Getting information out to people wherever they are, on whatever device they’re listening to or consuming media on, is really important. Beyond just the traditional TV screen, getting all that information on any device—if you don’t have power in your home, you’re not in your home—that’s really important.
What are you doing to grow the Scripps stations’ positions in their markets, and engineer those to be round-the-clock outlets?
We’re launching live streaming through an app of our [stations’] news and information in mid-September. If you lost power and have an iPad or iPhone and downloaded the app, you’ll be able to see our meteorologists and our radars and we can talk you through [an emergency]. To my knowledge, we will be the first broadcast company to provide that live streaming app in times of emergency.
We look at that beyond just emergency information— regular distribution of live content through apps. Most of the video that’s available through apps has been previously recorded. The idea that in an emergency we can provide live information from meteorologists as people would see on TV, or additional content they would not see on TV, is a great extension of how we serve our communities and how we use new technologies to enhance what we do.
Is it a challenge to do strong journalism but also be profitable?
Our investment in investigative, in strong community journalism, is engaging an audience and building a brand. We feel like those brands are getting consumed more and more. We think quality journalism is a great business model.
You’re in Washington quite a bit representing broadcasters on the spectrum issue. Why is that important to you?
Spectrum is at the core of our ability to distribute our signals to our existing audience base, but also to become more local and extend our commitment to our communities. Mobile is a tremendous opportunity, but it’s also about multicast channels that provide additional information and content. We like them for high school sports, things like that where we create good local community programming that we typically would be limited to doing because of network or syndicated commitments. To have additional spectrum to create programming that will engage an audience and develop a sense of community, we think is really important.
What’s your biggest priority as NBC affiliates chairman these days?
We remain very engaged in the concept of a proxy, whereby the network would be able to negotiate on behalf of affiliates in retransmission negotiations. The opportunity to scale [multiple] negotiations into single negotiations has upside for local affiliates, and I think it has upside for the network. Quite frankly I think it should be very appealing to MVPDs [multichannel video programming distributors] to be able to centralize their negotiations to a singular point and hopefully minimize the number of stations that get involved in retransmission disputes, and centralize the industry to standard platforms for those negotiations.
Might that concept also work at CBS or ABC?
I can’t speak for them. I’ve been spending a lot of time advancing the concept for NBC. What I hear from affiliates, they’re very interested in the opportunity. If we’re to introduce something like that, I’d think it’s something the other networks at least would look at to see if it makes sense for their affiliates.
What’s the workload been like on that proxy agreement?
[Laughs] It’s been significant.
You’ve emerged as an industry leader at a fairly young age. Who do you get your leadership lessons from?
It probably goes back to my upbringing and my relationship with my father, seeing the way he conducted himself personally and professionally. It’s also the team around me at Scripps—the vision of the family, the vision of the CEO related to quality journalism, the company’s mission of purpose. The obligation of a news organization and the difference it can make in people’s lives is a powerful concept. The broadcast leadership team at Scripps fully believes in it and takes a lot of pride in articulating and leading it.
There’s great opportunity for broadcasters now, with so many different voices in the markets, to stand out on issues that are important to the community and keep the community safe during emergencies, but also using our voice and strong brands to hold people accountable and be that watchdog. Our company is built on giving voice to people who normally wouldn’t have one and using our reach to hold leaders accountable to making their communities better, and make sure their personal agendas don’t override their ability to serve communities. Very few people can stand up and be advocates of the people. That responsibility, for Scripps and for other broadcasters, has never been more important.