CBS' New Science of Local Media

CEO Leslie Moonves and his team share a rare look at their local plans
Publish date:

CBS’ owned-and-operated television stations have had their ups and downs in recent years—not unlike the entire station business—and much like the local business in general, there are plenty of signs of an upswing. An eye-opening February sweeps performance saw several CBS O&Os upend longtime market leaders, prompting multiple high-level CBS executives to call it the best sweeps performance in memory.

But ratings are just part of the story, as CBS is bullish on initiatives like an exhaustive rollout of 24 joint TV-radio Websites in markets where CBS owns stations in both broadcast media. But instead of kicking back and admiring its handiwork now that the station business has solidified, those plotting the future for the CBS Television Stations, led by President Peter Dunn, are focused on what’s next, including plans for a multicast channel.

“We have such a huge amount of [local] content —it’s never been approached in quite the way Peter is doing right now, utilizing all our assets,” Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. president/ CEO, told B&C. “But before you can start inventing subchannels or even a digital philosophy, you have to get your main house in order. Our stations are humming now, and it’s time to expand the portfolio.”

In a series of interviews, Moonves and his top executives on the station front opened their local playbook, revealing a combination of best practices, new gambles and some oldfashioned luck.

While some deride the station business as mature, or downright wheezing, the high growth in local TV has made CBS’ 28 stations, including 16 that are affiliated with the CBS network, an essential part of what Moonves refers to as the company’s “content chain.”

Network TV may be CBS’ bread and butter, and new revenue streams such as retrans are considerably sexy, but Moonves and his deputies nonetheless see big things ahead for local media. In February, CBS reported that its combined TV and radio station revenue for the fourth quarter of 2010 increased 21% to $821.5 million over the previous year, with the television stations showing a 28% boost in revenue.

“In the last year, continuing into this year, the turnaround of our stations has been the biggest improvement in the company,” Moonves says.

First Step: A Ratings Rebound

And the turnaround of which Moonves speaks came from a rough patch in many places. The CBS-owned station group, which includes WCBS New York, KCBS Los Angeles and WBBM Chicago, was known as a batch of underperforming also-rans in recent years.

A number of factors have driven the rebound, but clearly the network’s continued momentum hasn’t hurt. CBS stays hot in primetime thanks to ratings-hogging franchises such as NCIS, CSI and Chuck Lorre comedies (no matter what certain actors think of him), and mixing in new players such as The Good Wife and Hawaii Five-0. That, along with a strong sports stable, has entrenched CBS affiliates as primetime leaders in the vast majority of TV markets nationwide, and that’s with little help from the troubled national news division, outside of stalwart 60 Minutes.

But the locals are keeping viewers around more than ever when primetime ends. The stations enjoyed a February 2011 sweeps that saw, among other surprises, WCBS New York grab the 11 p.m. ratings title from longtime leader WABC in households and total viewers for the first time in almost two decades, along with power moves up the pecking order in Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“It’s the first time all our news stations are No. 1 or No. 2 in households across the board,” says Dunn, who was elevated to group president in November 2009. “One thing we’ve been working on is holding on to our [primetime] retention, and more than half our stations held on to 100% of viewers coming out of prime. We’ve never seen that kind of retention in the past.”

The retention Dunn speaks of has been the responsibility of David Friend, WCBS news director, since his promotion to a group-wide news role last August.

What’s Working

Moonves and company cite several factors that have helped shore up the local business that some of CBS’ competitors had all but dismissed in recent times.

For instance, having a mechanism in place to share best practices—as well as hot topics and stories—throughout the group has helped the CBS stations thrive in the vital late-news battles.

The CBS group has also emphasized promoting talent from within, as opposed to luring away a star anchor from the competition, both to foster continuity and to keep salaries out of the stratosphere. When WCBS New York lead anchor Chris Wragge was tapped in the network’s latest attempt to clean up the Early Show mess in late November, morning anchor Maurice Dubois was promoted to evenings and late news on WCBS and helped the station to its landmark February performance. “We’ve focused on building the brand over the past four or five years,” says Friend. “When changes occur in the anchor realm, the brand continues.”

Moonves also credits Dunn for making key changes in general managers, including shifting Steve Mauldin from Dallas to Los Angeles.

But as essential to the stations’ success as anything has been an overhauled local strategy that kicked off 16 months ago with the birth of CBS Local Media, which Moonves at the time called “a strategic restructuring of [CBS’] local broadcasting operations.”

After years of working separately—and often competing against one another for scoops and sales—a market’s CBS owned TV station and radio station(s) were instructed to work side-by-side on content, promotions and revenue. “We were in silos,” says Anton Guitano, CBS Local Media COO, of life before the overhaul. “TV worried about TV and radio worried about radio. The Web was in a totally different area.”

Digging for Digital Dollars

Joe Ianniello, CBS executive VP/CFO, recently said the $15 billion local online marketplace represented a $500 million-plus opportunity for CBS. In January 2010, CBS tapped Ezra Kucharz to go after this digital cash, and the new Local Digital Media president—a veteran of employers as varied as iVillage and NASA—set about folding the various CBS local Websites in a market, including TV stations and properties like sports radio franchise WFAN and news radio outlets CBS 880 and 1010 WINS, into joint sites with the template of and (CBS-owned music stations have retained their own sites.)

The sites compete not so much with other station sites in the market, but with daily newspapers and consumer-focused sites like City- Search. “One content [team], one sales team, one unified strategic vision,” was how Kucharz described it in a recent presentation to investors.

Kucharz says page views for the joint sites have surpassed the aggregate totals from back in the multiple-site days, while the average time users spent on the CBS sites has grown from 3½ minutes to well over 11. “We’re typically in the top 2-3 sites in our markets, usually behind the newspaper,” Kucharz says. “In terms of electronic media, there is nobody bigger than we are in most markets.”

Under the new philosophy, for example, WCBS sports anchor Sam Ryan appears on sports radio WFAN, while longtime 1010 WINS street reporter John Montone does segments on WCBS. CBS Radio President/CEO Dan Mason says the strategy is a throwback to the old days of broadcasting, where reporters popped up frequently on the parent company’s TV and radio properties. “We’re bringing back a concept that’s worked so well in the past,” Mason says. “But we’re bringing it back bigger and better.”

What’s Old Is New Again

Indeed, it’s not a new concept that’s driving the CBS stations’ rebirth. And based on its success, one has to wonder why the all-for-one local strategy wasn’t pushed a decade ago. Some of it was born out of cost-cutting necessity as much as innovation. Certainly the heavy downsizing stations underwent in the recent recession helped prompt the move, as TV and radio now share back-office functions in a common market. “We’ve steadily whittled away costs and capitalized on synergies…in a way we never had before,” Moonves told investors Feb. 24.

CBS’ local brain trust says the past 16 months is the opening chapter of a multi-faceted local strategy. Kucharz is in talks about licensing CBS Local Media’s digital couponing platform, offering deals of the day à la Groupon with other station groups.

Friend is bullish on a mobile news-gathering technology in place in half of the group’s stations that allows reporters equipped with gear that fits in a backpack to transmit hi-def signals on the go. The “Mobile 2” truck has contributed at least two signature reports this winter: one viral video that showed former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine offering an impromptu tour of snowy Stamford, Conn., from the back seat of the Mobile 2 vehicle, and another showing New York’s substandard snow removal effort in the outer boroughs days after a blizzard.

“It brings the viewer closer to the story,” says Friend. “It adds another dimension to the depth of our news coverage.”

The stations’ ratings success stories may only last until the next sweeps. But for now, CBS’ local execs think they’re on to something big.

“It’s the first time we are all working together— it’s showing up in the ratings, it’s showing up in revenue, it’s showing up in content,” says Dunn. “We have so many assets in our markets and a bigger voice. People tell me, ‘Wow—you woke up a sleeping giant.’”

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz